States Rally to Defend Voting Rights as Courts Chip Away at Federal Safeguards

States Rally to Defend Voting Rights as Courts Chip Away at Federal Safeguards

The Need for State-Level Voting Rights Protections

In the wake of an appeals court ruling that weakened an important provision of the Voting Rights Act, lawmakers in several states have been scrambling to enact state-level protections to plug gaps that the decision opened in the landmark federal law aimed at prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. Democrats-led states have been taking matters into their own hands because national legislation to expand voting rights remains stalled in a divided Congress. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in many states have tried to erode safeguards in the name of protecting election integrity amid false claims of vote fraud.

The 8th Circuit’s Decision

At the center of the controversy is the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in an Arkansas case that voters and groups could no longer sue under Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The decision applies only to the seven states in the 8th Circuit, which stretches from Minnesota to Arkansas. Section 2 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, including maps that disadvantage voters of color. Lawsuits have long been brought under Section 2 to try to ensure Black voters have adequate political representation in places with a long history of racism, including many Southern states. Legal observers expect the case to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

State-Level Voting Rights Acts

In response, legislators in Minnesota, Michigan, Maryland, New Jersey, and Florida are pursuing state-level voting rights acts, building on ones enacted by New York in 2022 and Connecticut in 2023, as well as ones enacted earlier in Virginia, Oregon, Washington, and California. Democratic Rep. Emma Greenman of Minneapolis said there was an urgent need to act after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year and added that such state-level measures were essential to ensure equal access to the ballot box.

Michael Pernick, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, noted that there was interest from other states that are considering taking up state VRAs in the next year or so. The proposed state-level voting right acts all share similarities, outlined below.

Private Right of Action and Preclearance Requirements

All state-level voting rights acts under consideration and the ones already enacted, give voters and groups a “private right of action” to challenge laws that dilute or suppress the votes of people of color. That’s the right the 8th Circuit struck down on the federal level. Some of the state proposals also include preclearance requirements for changes in voting to ensure they don’t harm voters of color.

Safe Harbor provisions

Several state proposals, like New York’s, include “safe harbor” provisions to try to head off the kind of lengthy, expensive litigation that often has been needed to enforce federal law. The Minnesota bill, for example, would require potential plaintiffs to notify political subdivisions before they sue to create opportunities to negotiate remedies first.

The Impact of State-Level Voting Rights Acts

These state-level voting rights acts are a crucial step towards ensuring fair access to voting for all. The recent attempts by Republican lawmakers to weaken safeguards against voter suppression in the name of electoral integrity, perpetuate the systematic disenfranchisement of communities of color. False allegations of voter fraud have been widely discredited by courts and election officials. Enacting state-level voting rights acts would create a more equitable democratic outcome while continuing to pressure the federal government to address voting rights on a federal level.

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