The voting rights world did not take a vacation this summer.
As the summer months went by, Republicans devoted their energy to passing restrictive voting laws. States began the decennial redistricting process, and courts handed down significant decisions that reshaped access to the ballot box.
Here are some litigation highlights from this summer that you may have missed:
Voting rights remain on the docket.
During the first half of 2021, 18 states passed 30 voter suppression laws that affect all steps in the voting process, and with new laws come new litigation. Lawsuits are currently ongoing in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Montana and Texas challenging newly-passed voter suppression laws. Together, the laws being challenged address every aspect of voting: voter education and advocacy, registration, completing and returning absentee ballots, in-person voting and more. Groups that want to protect access to the ballot box are also fighting a lawsuit in Wisconsin that seeks to ban drop boxes after their widespread use during the 2020 election cycle. In states such as Florida and Georgia — homes to two far-reaching voter suppression bills — Republicans intervened in cases brought by Democrats, voting rights groups and civil rights organizations and are actively trying to expand and safeguard restrictive voting measures.
Redistricting litigation began.
Full census data was released mid-August, but the redistricting fight began in the courts earlier this summer and will further heat up as the weather cools down. In Illinois, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed a federal suit challenging the 2021 redistricting maps signed into law by Gov. J. B. Pritzker (D) earlier this year, alleging that the maps, which were drawn using preliminary population estimates after the delayed release of census data, were not drawn to ensure districts are “substantially equal in population.” The Illinois GOP has also filed a suit challenging the maps.
Since April, individual voters have sued in four states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Louisiana) asking courts to declare the current legislative and congressional district maps unconstitutional and implement new maps that adhere to the constitutional requirement of one person, one vote. These suits were filed in states with governments that have historically not been able to come to an agreement on new maps, necessitating that the courts step in. By suing early, the plaintiffs hope to get the courts involved in time for new maps to be implemented for the 2022 election cycle.
A similar lawsuit was also filed in Texas in which Texas Democrats argue that the state’s current legislative maps are unconstitutionally malapportioned, but, according to the suit, Governor Greg Abbott’s (R) plan to call a special session to redraw districts violates the state constitution. The complaint argues that the Legislature cannot redraw malapportioned legislature districts until its next regular session, which won’t happen until January 2023. The suit asks the court to step in and draw interim maps to use in the 2022 election cycle.
In Virginia, Republicans are challenging the state’s new method of counting incarcerated individuals, arguing that counting prisoners at their last known address (as opposed to the prison in which they are incarcerated) will dilute the voting power of Republicans in rural Virginia. The suit asks the court to prohibit this law from being implemented in the new redistricting cycle, effectively advocating for prison gerrymandering.
Courts handed down wins and losses for voters.
There is no doubt that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee was a blow for voting rights across the country. The Court’s six conservative justices upheld two restrictive voting laws in Arizona and, in the process, weakened Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which provides a mechanism for challenging laws that were enacted with a discriminatory purpose or have a discriminatory impact. The good news is that, even though the Brnovich decision weakened the VRA, Section 2 still stands and voting rights cases can still be litigated in court.
Outside of the federal landscape, there were significant wins for voting rights in various states this summer. In New Hampshire, a strict voter residency law was struck down after the state Supreme Court found that it imposed “unreasonable burdens on the right to vote.” This was a huge victory particularly for young, low-income and minority voters or those who have recently moved in the state — groups that are less likely to have adequate documentation for strict residency requirements.
In Indiana, a federal appellate court held that a state law that purged Indiana voters from registration rolls without following adequate notification procedures violated federal law. The district court will have to define what constitutes adequate “communication” from a voter about their registration status, but the illegal purge of potentially eligible voters is no longer taking place.
A huge victory came from Texas — a notoriously difficult state to vote in — when the state agreed to permanently offer simultaneous voter registration when an eligible voter renews or updates his or her driver’s licenses or ID cards online. This option was not previously offered until August 2020 when a court ordered Texas to offer simultaneous registration in August 2020. Since then, over 1 million Texans have registered to vote while completing an online driver’s license transaction. This settlement makes the court-ordered compliance permanent.
Finally, a North Carolina state court recently ruled that all individuals on probation, parole or a suspended sentence due to a prior felony conviction can immediately register to vote in North Carolina. This ruling, which expanded a previous order that prohibited cost-based barriers to re-enfranchisement, immediately gave 55,000 individuals with a prior felony conviction the right to vote.
While the country waits for Congress to pass federal legislation that will secure access to the ballot box, litigation both protecting and attacking the right to vote will continue in the courts.
Feel free to follow along on our Cases page. We’ll keep a close eye on all major lawsuits affecting voting rights.