Analysis of Key Voter Law Cases
This article discusses the Voting Rights Act, explains the key amendments to the Act, and analyzes other key voter law cases in plain language.
Voting Rights and the Constitution
The right to vote is an essential part of being an American. Voting rights date back to Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.
There have been several constitutional amendments since then to ensure equal voting rights for citizens of the United States. For instance, the Fifteenth Amendment gave African Americans the right to vote regardless of race or previous condition of servitude while the 24th Amendment abolished poll taxes.
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the right of citizens of the United States to equal protection under the law, which has had a significant impact in many voting rights cases in federal court, including those involving voting age and felons' rights to vote.
The Senate and the House of Representatives also passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to further ensure all United States citizens have an equal right to vote regardless of their race. It outlawed many discriminatory voting practices adopted by some states in statutes and state constitutions following the Civil War, including literacy tests and certain other eligibility requirements.
Amendments to the 1965 Voting Rights Act
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to get approval from the federal government before they can change their election laws. This is called "preclearance." Congress extended Section 5 of the Act in 1970 (for five years), 1975 (for seven years), and 1982 (for 25 years).
The 1982 Amendment came after the Supreme Court decision in Mobile v. Bolden, 100 S.Ct. 1490 (1980), where the Court held that plaintiffs must prove the state in question drafted the laws with the intent to discriminate against them based on their race. In response, Congress changed the law so that victims could prove violations by just showing that the law resulted in racial discrimination.
Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013)
The special formula used to determine which parts of the U.S. are more prone to discrimination was created by Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 then provided that these areas needed to get approval before changing their election laws.
In 2013, however, in the landmark decision, Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court held the Act had achieved its purpose and overturned Section 4 as unconstitutional. The Court did not specifically strike down Section 5. However, Section 5 is ineffective without Section 4(b), since no state will be subject to Section 5 until Congress enacts a new formula.
The majority ruling states that these requirements rely on information taken in the 1960s and that this ruling allows Congress to update the formula by way of legislation.
Critics of the ruling argue that it has made it more difficult for African Americans and other minority groups to vote than white men. After this ruling, studies show that almost 1700 polling places in 13 states have been shut down, mainly in Latino and Black communities.
Voter Registration Cases
Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 128 S.Ct. 1610 (2008)
This case deals with whether states can require a photo ID as a prerequisite to voting. Indiana had enacted an election law (SEA 483) that required citizens to present government-issued photo identification at voting stations. The Supreme Court held that the state law was reasonable and did not unduly burden voters in either state elections or federal elections.
Today, states have different voter ID laws. In New York, for example, registered voters need not present a picture ID to vote. In Georgia, you need a picture ID to vote, while in states like Alaska, an ID without a picture will suffice.
Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, 138 S.Ct. 1833 (2018)
In this case, the Supreme Court concluded that Ohio's “supplemental process" did not violate the National Voter Registration Act.
Through this supplemental process, Ohio created a way to identify and remove voters who were no longer eligible to vote. To determine ineligibility, counties in Ohio compiled a list of registered voters who had not voted for two years.
The county then sent notices asking the voters to confirm their address. If the voters did not respond to the notice, re-register to vote, or did not vote within the next four years, the county removed them from the voter polls.
The National Voter Registration Act (52 U.S. Code, Section 20507) gives states the power to administer voter registration in their respective states. Accordingly, states have different requirements when it comes to voting registration procedures. As of 2023, 22 states, such as Virginia, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia allow same-day registration for eligible voters on election day.
Voter Disenfranchisement Cases
Richardson v. Ramirez, 94 S.Ct. 2655 (1974)
The Supreme Court held disenfranchisement of felons who completed their sentences does not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The case arose in California when the state refused to allow three convicted felons who had completed their sentences to register to vote in their respective counties.
Note that states have the option to allow felons to vote. For instance, in 2019, Florida passed a voting registration amendment that gave felons the right to vote if they completed their sentences, including probation and parole.
In Vermont and Maine, you never lose your right to vote even if you are currently serving your sentence.
Racial Gerrymandering and Voter Dilution Cases
Thornburg v. Gingles, 106 S.Ct. 2752 (1986)
In this case, the Supreme Court found gerrymandering on the basis of race was inconsistent with section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court specifically stated that North Carolina's redistricting damaged African Americans' ability “to participate equally in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice" and "discriminated against African Americans through diluting their collective vote."
In both of these cases, the Supreme Court affirmed that if a state uses race as the predominant factor for districting, then the district becomes an unconstitutional gerrymander as it violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Miller v. Johnson, however, the Court indirectly implied that it wouldn't be an unconstitutional gerrymander if race is one of the factors that a state uses when redistricting. The Court later affirmed this in Easley v. Cromartie, 121 S.Ct. 1452 (2000) when it reversed the DC Court's judgment stating redistricting will not be unconstitutional as long as race is not the predominant factor.
Allen v. Milligan, 143 S.Ct. 2607 (2023)
In this case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that gerrymandering on the basis of race violated section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. With four justices dissenting, the Court found that Alabama's congressional map, drafted largely by Republicans, likely diluted the votes of Black residents by packing many living in an area known as the "Black Belt" into a single district, while at the same time dispersing other Black voters among other districts.
The Supreme Court rejected an interpretation of section 2 that would have made it much harder for political parties to challenge redistricting plans for congressional and presidential elections drafted by state legislatures on the basis of race.
Consult an Attorney if Your Rights Were Violated
The right to vote is one of the foundational principles of American democracy. That is why it is central to many of the key voter law cases. If you think your voting rights have been violated or if you are facing discrimination when attempting to vote, consider speaking to a civil rights attorney.