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Is the Voting Rights Act at risk?

A federal appeals court is challenging Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in a battle that's likely to make its way to the Supreme Court.
Is the Voting Rights Act at risk?
Posted at 4:53 PM, Dec 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-03 18:54:54-05

In late November, a federal appeals court ruled against a key component of the Voting Rights Act.

Passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was one of the biggest achievements of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. It directly attacked discriminatory Jim Crow laws and prohibited gerrymandering voting districts along racial lines.

Now, though, the federal appeals court has ruled that only the government can bring lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act.

Over the years, the majority of challenges against discriminatory voting have come from individuals, private organizations, and voting rights advocacy groups.

Critics of the ruling are sounding the alarm that this could make the Voting Rights Act ineffective.

Supporters of the appeals' court decision to limit challenges only to the government have claimed the case is not about dismantling the Voting Rights Act.

The executive director of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group, told the New York Times that the Voting Rights Act was never intended to be "a partisan weapon against democratically enacted election integrity laws and redistricting practices."

The section of the law under review has been regularly used in other legal battles over voting rights.

Earlier in November, Black voters in North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging new state legislative maps as a racial gerrymander in violation of Section 2.

SEE MORE: Near-record number of restrictive voting laws enacted in 2023

In June, the Supreme Court ruled against the district map drawn by the state of Alabama. A number of civil rights organizations sued the state for violating the Voting Rights Act and gerrymandering with racial discrimination.

On the Supreme Court, a 5-4 majority agreed. Two conservative justices joined the three liberal justices in the majority.

"States like Alabama have been doing business as usual, in a way that has harmed minority voters time and time again. Both Congress and the courts have reaffirmed that minority voters have a recourse under federal law to discriminatory laws and discriminatory maps," said Abha Khanna, the lawyer who argued Allen v. Milligan. 

States typically update congressional maps once a decade, and many are now facing new redistricting battles at the state level throughout the country.

In Wisconsin, the state supreme court has heard challenges against the voting district map for allegedly violating the state's constitution. Wisconsin is often cited as 'one of the most gerrymandered' states in the U.S.

This is the backdrop for the recent Voting Rights Act ruling, which is likely to be sent next to the country's Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of preventing individuals from challenging discriminatory laws, it will have a massive ripple effect across each state's new map.

"There's nothing about it that is an entitlement. It is a protection against discrimination. It has been a foundational piece of legislation and legal precedent to protect minority voting rights, not just across the South but across the country," said Khanna.

In the years after the 2020 election, multiple polls suggested more Americans are most concerned with making sure anyone who wants to vote can have access.

But polling also found a steep partisan divide:

In a NPR/PBS/Marist poll, Democrats were staunchly more concerned with access than voter eligibility. Republicans were more concerned with making sure no one voted who wasn't eligible. A Pew Research survey supported these results.

Over the past half century, the Voting Rights Act has faced repeated challenges since it was enacted.

And as the presidential election approaches, voting access will be a key talking point for both parties and American voters.


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