UPDATE: On Monday, April 10, the Maryland Legislature adjourned its 2023 legislative session. Senate Bill 878 did not move forward.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Maryland Democrats introduced Senate Bill 878 and House Bill 1104, the “Voting Rights Act of 2023 – Counties and Municipalities.” The central tenet of the Maryland Voting Rights Act would mirror the now-defunct Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), requiring that jurisdictions with histories of voting discrimination receive “preclearance” from the Maryland attorney general’s Civil Rights Division before enacting election law changes, including redistricting.
Additional legal protections within S.B. 878 include a framework for determining whether specific actions by a local government “deny, impair, or diminish the right to vote of protected class members.” The bill also names specific election methods that would violate this section, the evidence courts should and should not consider in reaching a decision on whether a violation occurred and possible remedies. S.B. 878 would create a private right of action by explicitly making its legal protections privately enforceable, meaning individuals and organizations — and not just the Maryland attorney general — have the right to bring lawsuits under the law. S.B. 878 likewise would create a private right of action for organizations and individuals challenging instances of voter intimidation.
Finally, S.B. 878 would establish a statewide election database and require local election boards to procure materials and assistance in other languages if over 2% of the local population (but more than 100 individuals) primarily speaks a language other than English.
In light of the federal VRA being steadily weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court over the past decade, a small number of states have passed state-level VRAs, starting with Washington in 2018 and followed by Oregon in 2019, Virginia in 2021 and New York in 2022. California has had a state-level law in effect since 2002.
Other states, all with Democratic trifectas, have introduced important voting bills this legislative session. Most recently, on Feb. 16, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) announced that she intends to work alongside election clerks and legislators to draft a Michigan Voting Rights Act, building on protections passed by voters during the 2022 midterm elections. Minnesota and New Mexico are also advancing omnibus pro-voting bills, though these remain distinct from the Maryland bill in that they do not create preclearance processes or strengthen the legal bases for challenging unfair election laws.