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As U.S. Elections Near, a String of Voting Rights Victories

A woman standing by a voting booth
A voter stands at a polling station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 26, 2016. © Andrew Harrer/Getty

Three years ago this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder left voters in 15 states without protections previously afforded them under the landmark civil rights legislation. State legislators whose election policies had previously been deemed discriminatory by the Justice Department were emboldened to enact voter ID and other suppressive measures that negatively impact voters of color, using false arguments about the prevalence of fraud to fuel their efforts.

In response to these challenges, the Open Society Foundations created the Shelby Response Fund, bringing together litigators, researchers, state and local advocates, communications strategists, and organizers. The fund’s members worked on a number of fronts to try to restore voting rights protections stripped away by the high court ruling.

Lately, one aspect of their efforts in particular has been bearing fruit. In recent weeks, our voting rights grantees have celebrated court victories ensuring that hundreds of thousands of eligible voters will be able to exercise their rights at the polls this November.

On August 11, a federal district court in North Carolina held that the state legislature had unconstitutionally used race in redrawing district boundaries in 2011, unnecessarily increasing the percentage of black voters in districts where they had been successfully electing their candidates of choice for years. This case, filed by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, was five years in the making—an example of how long justice can take, as well as the importance of the courts as a corrective.  

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that North Carolina’s 2013 voter ID legislation was enacted with discriminatory intent in violation of both the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. This voter ID measure was infamously referred to as the “monster bill” because of its far-reaching impact on voting rights—it also eliminated early voting, same-day registration, preregistration for 16- and 17-year olds, and out-of-precinct voting.

Also in July, a federal court decided to provide a safety net for Wisconsin voters who, under a 2011 law, are required to present voter ID at the polls. With this ruling, the court gives voters who have a difficult time getting qualifying ID the option to vote by affidavit and receive a regular ballot instead of a provisional one. The court found that the state’s interests could not justify disenfranchising voters who cannot obtain ID with reasonable effort.

In Texas, after three years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the state’s 2013 voter ID law does indeed violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by denying black and Latino voters an equal opportunity to cast a ballot.

And in North Dakota, a federal court ruled that North Dakota’s voter ID law placed a disproportionate burden on Native American voters who didn’t have driver’s licenses or a tribal ID that included an address. “[N]o eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote,” the court held.

The Shelby Fund’s members—including the ACLU, the Native American Rights Fund, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, among others—deserve great credit for their sound litigation skills and strategy. We also must applaud state and local groups who have been working within the states, telling stories about how discriminatory and unnecessary these post-Shelby measures have been. 

This work is by no means done. Advocates are still striving to restore the Voting Rights Act protections eroded by the Supreme Court’s ruling. They will not rest until the legacy of the Shelby decision is undone. But these recent victories will help bolster the advocates’ efforts in the coming months and years—and ensure that so many voters disenfranchised by suppressive laws have an opportunity to participate fully in the elections this November. 

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