In the decade since the Supreme Court eroded vital protections of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, we've seen an overwhelming number of attempts by state legislatures to weaken the political power of Black and brown communities. The Shelby County decision ushered in a new era of voter suppression laws, racially gerrymandered district maps, and other harmful election practices targeting Black and Brown voters. A handful of states adopted versions of the Voting Rights Act, a powerful tool for counteracting and preventing voter suppression efforts. However, no matter how robust, state legislation does not replace the need for federal legislation protecting our right to vote.   

Our ability to engage in the political process should be independent of the state we live in. We need strong federal legislation to stem the tide of discriminatory and unfair election practices and ensure that everyone can fully participate in our democracy. The reintroduction of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and other pro-voter bills currently pending in Congress can help fulfill this goal. Below, we look at the current state of voting rights, how we got here, and the next steps for protecting ballot access.  

Background: The Voting Rights Act of 1965

On paper, the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 established the right to vote for Black men and protected against attempts to deny people the right to vote based on race. In practice, however, Black and brown Americans remained largely disenfranchised due to poll taxes, literacy tests, and other voter suppression tactics until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.   

The landmark law outlawed racial discrimination in voting and created a robust enforcement mechanism known as "preclearance." Preclearance required jurisdictions with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices to seek approval from the federal government before changing their election laws.   

The Voting Rights Act was remarkably successful in increasing access to the ballot for Black and brown people. Less than a year after passage, a quarter of a million Black Americans registered to vote. According to the Brennan Center, the disparity between Black and white registration rates dropped from 30% to 8% by the early 1970s. In 1975, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act, extending voting protections to language minority groups through Section 203. While having a robust and fully enforceable Voting Rights Act did not stop attempts to undermine full political participation for Black and brown people, it provided a boost for our democracy. Considered the "crown jewel" of the Civil Rights era, the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized several times, most recently in 2006, with broad bipartisan support.    

How the Supreme Court Gutted Decades of Voting Rights Protections

To understand why federal voting rights legislation is currently necessary, one must only look at U.S. history and the swift rollback of protections in the wake of the Shelby County decision. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted preclearance in Shelby County, holding that the formula used to determine which states were covered by preclearance was outdated. States that were previously required to comply with preclearance immediately began passing voter suppression laws, including strict voter ID requirements and restrictions on early voting and mail-in voting, the effects of which were particularly severe for Black voters in the South. For example, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared a previously blocked voter ID law valid almost immediately after the Court announced the Shelby County decision.

At least 29 states have passed 94 laws restricting voting since the Shelby County decision; most are still in effect. Shelby County also gave state legislators free rein to manipulate the redistricting process to strip Black and brown voters of political power. As of July 2023, 74 lawsuits have challenged congressional or legislative maps in 27 states because they are racially discriminatory and/or partisan gerrymanders.   

In the past ten years since the Shelby County decision, the Supreme Court has continued to whittle away the remaining protections of the Voting Rights Act. Without preclearance, the primary means for enforcing the Voting Rights Act's protections against discriminatory voting laws is through litigation under Section 2 of the Act. Section 2 prohibits any law that "results in a denial or abridgment” of the right to vote "on account of race or color." However, the Court made Section 2 litigation significantly more difficult in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee in 2021 by requiring courts to consider certain "guideposts" never evaluated in such cases. These new guideposts include analysis of the state's other voting opportunities and how the challenged law compares to 1982 when Congress amended Section 2.  

The Supreme Court's dismantling of voting rights protections signals to other courts and state legislatures that they can do the same. One of the most egregious recent examples is an absurd decision from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Arkansas State Conference NAACP v. Arkansas Board of Apportionment, threatening the right of private action under Section 2— a vital tool for challenging racist voting laws and practices. In a sharp departure from decades of precedent, the 8th Circuit's anti-voting ruling found that only the U.S. Attorney General —not a private plaintiff—can sue under Section 2, undermining the ability of impacted communities to protect against voter suppression. Between 1982 and 2022, most of the over 400 Section 2 challenges were brought by voters and other private plaintiffs. These challenges include the 2023 Supreme Court decision in Allen v. Milligan, a racial gerrymandering case brought by Black voters in Alabama.   

Voting Rights in States Previously Covered by the Federal Preclearance Provisions

States and counties previously subject to preclearance under the Voting Rights Act have been aggressively backsliding since Shelby. They have purged voters at higher rates than jurisdictions not subject to preclearance. They have passed some of the most regressive voter suppression bills of the last decade—particularly in the wake of high Black and brown voter turnout in the 2020 elections. Examples include: 

  • Georgia: In 2021, after high Black voter participation in the 2020 presidential elections and the 2021 Senate runoff elections, the Georgia Legislature enacted S.B. 202, a 98-page voter suppression bill. Among numerous other restrictions, S.B. 202 made significant cuts to voting by mail, which Black and Asian American voters in Georgia have relied on more heavily than white voters in recent elections. S.B. 202 also enables partisan actors to take over county election boards and usurp their role in administering elections.  
  • Texas: In the same year, Texas passed S.B. 1, which also places significant restrictions on voting by mail (the preferred method of voting by Black and Latino voters), as well as restrictions on voter outreach, assistance to voters with disabilities and language barriers, and the ability to protect voters from harassment by poll watchers.   
  • North Carolina: S.B. 747, passed in 2022, introduced a host of voter suppression tactics, including tighter deadlines on voting by mail.  
  • South Carolina: South Carolina followed North Carolina’s lead in 2022 by passing a host of voting restrictions, including limitations on mail-in voting in S108. Also, this term the Supreme Court heard  Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, a case challenging South Carolina legislators' blatant attempt at racial gerrymandering. 
  • Florida: In 2023, the Florida legislature passed S.B. 7050, which includes many restrictive provisions, including prohibiting non-citizens and certain systems-impacted people from handling voter registration applications. There is no legitimate reason to bar those who cannot legally vote from assisting eligible voters with their registrations; moreover, this law severely hampers the efforts of organizations that rely on such volunteers to help encourage voter registration. To that end, Demos and its partners have been partially victorious in challenging S.B. 7050. It's not the first time after Shelby County that Florida has passed an omnibus voter suppression bill.  

These unchecked attacks on access to the ballot have dire consequences for voters of color, as evidenced by the widening racial turnout gap. While the racial turnout gap—the difference in turnout between white voters and voters of color—has increased nearly everywhere over the last decade, it grew almost twice as quickly in jurisdictions formerly covered by preclearance, according to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice. While some jurisdictions are taking steps to protect voting rights at the state level, as described below, comprehensive nationwide legislation is critically important in stemming the post-Shelby County tide of voter suppression. 

What States Are Doing to Protect Voting Rights

In recent years, a handful of states have enacted legislation to protect or expand voting rights. For example, after over a decade of organizing, our partners in New Mexico at Organizing in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ) and Take Action Minnesota worked hard to secure legislation in their respective states guaranteeing the right to vote for people on probation or parole. However, organizers should not have to secure piecemeal victories to protect rights that the federal government should guarantee. Felony disenfranchisement provides a strong example of the patchwork of inconsistent voting rights laws across the country, as states vary widely concerning the voting rights of systems-impacted people.  

A minimal number of state legislatures have stepped up and passed their own Voting Rights Acts to protect Black and brown voters from discriminatory election practices. Except for California, which passed its Voting Rights Act in 2002, several states passed their own Voting Rights Acts after the Shelby County decision. Currently, Washington (2018), Oregon (2019), Virginia (2021), New York (2022), and Connecticut (2023) have state-level Voting Rights Act. These bills are often modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act, which includes the now-defunct preclearance provision. Recently, state legislators have tried to pass similar legislation in New Jersey (introduced in 2022), Maryland (introduced in 2023), Michigan (introduced in 2023), and Illinois (introduced in 2023) but so far have not been successful.  

State Voting Rights Acts are beacons of hope in a post-Shelby County world, but they are still uncommon and often hard to pass. While powerful, these laws are insufficient to protect voting rights for Black and brown voters. Each state can and should pass legislation that provides additional voting protections beyond those guaranteed at the federal level and addresses any nuances specific to that state. At the same time, we need a national standard like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that protects and champions everyone's right to vote.   

It’s Time to Pass The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is an outgrowth of nearly a decade of legislative efforts to restore and update the core protections of the Voting Rights Act. In 2015, Congress introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act in response to the "modern-day challenges of voting discrimination" impacting voters since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Act has been reintroduced several times, and in 2020, it was renamed after the late Rep. John Lewis, renowned for his leadership, courage, and unwavering commitment to voting rights and democracy.   

An updated version of the bill was most recently introduced in the Senate on February 29, 2024. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act extends protections previously available under the Voting Rights Act and responds to growing attacks on voting rights. The bill also expands the original preclearance provision by establishing a nationwide system of preclearance that would prevent specific voting policies known to be harmful to Black and brown voters. Strengthening Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act also provides a more effective process for challenging discriminatory voting laws and maps. 

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act directly addresses the Supreme Court's erosion of voting rights protections by requiring courts to apply well-established standards in evaluating race-based discrimination claims in voting. This is the type of bold federal action we need to ensure full political participation for Black and brown voters, including fair access to the ballot.

Expanding Our Rights for the Democracy We Deserve

To strengthen our democracy, we need more than defensive laws that provide pathways for challenging voter suppression and other discriminatory voting practices. We need federal legislation that ensures full political participation for all. Congress can and must go further by enacting policies that affirmatively expand and empower the electorate and make voting more accessible. This much-needed legislation includes:

  • The Freedom to Vote Act - would implement automatic and same-day voter registration and guarantee flexible and convenient voting options for all voters. This law also includes provisions to protect against unlawful voter purges and deceptive and intimidating tactics, ensure a fairer process for congressional redistricting, and shrink big money’s role in politics. 
  • The Expanding the Vote Act - aims to enable voters with limited English proficiency to vote in the language of their choice and provide funding for states and counties to create multilingual election materials. This law would benefit voters such as native speakers of Middle Eastern and African languages, who are excluded from any language assistance under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Even communities eligible for language assistance under Section 203 must use English-only ballots because the population thresholds for coverage are too high.
  • The Inclusive Democracy Act - would end felony disenfranchisement in federal elections. Alongside policies that make voting more manageable and more accessible, we also need policies that support a just and inclusive democracy by creating pathways for systems-impacted people to become part of the electorate.   

For our democracy to thrive, we need updated, affirmative voting rights nationwide. Federal legislation must create standards that make voting more accessible and convenient, making our democracy inclusive, expansive, and reflective of our multiracial society.