A private right of action, also referred to as a private cause of action, allows an individual or organization to bring a lawsuit in court based on an alleged violation of a law and to seek relief to remedy that alleged violation. If there is no private right of action, only the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) can file a lawsuit under a given statute, severely limiting the power behind a law by restricting who can sue under it.  

A private right of action can either be express or implied. Congress creates an express private right of action when it explicitly defines that private individuals and groups can file lawsuits pertaining to the legislation at hand. The National Voter Registration Act, for example, states that any “person who is aggrieved by a violation” of this law can follow certain steps and, if needed, file a federal lawsuit to address any violations.

An implied private right of action is defined by courts rather than Congress. If Congress does not explicitly spell out who or how individuals can bring federal lawsuits to enforce the law at hand, it is up to the court system to determine if a non-governmental figure has the ability to pursue relief via the courts.

The DOJ has limited time and resources; lawsuits by private parties have long been essential in advancing civil and voting rights. Under current U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, the DOJ has filed a total of eight voting rights and redistricting lawsuits, five of which are actively ongoing. As of May 4, 2023, the DOJ’s five ongoing lawsuits represent only 2.4% of the 210 active voting rights and redistricting cases that Democracy Docket is currently tracking. 

Now, in multiple lawsuits, conservative actors are increasingly asserting that certain voting rights protections have no private right of action. The most potent argument contends that there is no private right of action under the Materiality Provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but a federal judge in Arkansas has also attempted to apply this no-private-right-of-action argument to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If courts embrace this theory — one largely unmoored from history and precedent — then the power of voting protections would be greatly diminished.

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In the courts

Arkansas Legislative Redistricting Challenge

Lawsuit filed on behalf of the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and Arkansas Public Policy Panel challenging Arkansas' new state House map passed following the release of 2020 census data.


Kansas Dodge City Electoral System Challenge

Lawsuit filed on behalf of three Latine voters in Dodge City, Kansas challenging the at-large system used for electing members to the Dodge City Commission.


Texas Online Registration

Lawsuit challenging Texas's law requiring voter registration applications to include original signatures.