Bolder Advocacy

What Now for Voting Rights Advocates?


The 2012 election saw heated battles over voting laws and tactics to suppress votes by people of color.

Yesterday, when the Supreme Court overturned a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act, it removed, as our president Nan Aron put it, “the keystone from the arch of protection for people of color.” Voting rights advocates blasted the decision, coming only a year after an election season marred by rancorous battles over restrictive voting laws.

Civil rights organizations and other groups concerned about voting rights immediately called on Congress to restore voting rights or pass a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to vote.

What does the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County mean for groups working in states where voting rights are threatened? Law professor and voting rights expert Spencer Overton predicts that protecting voting rights will now be more expensive and slower:

“We will miss a lot of under-the-radar manipulation. It also will be tougher to stop unfair rules before they are actually used in elections and harm voters. The biggest problem will be the under-the-radar manipulation of election rules for local offices that are often nonpartisan and escape national attention—over 85% of all election rule changes rejected as unfair under Section 5 were at the local level.”

The burden for protecting access to the ballot will now fall on the shoulders of national and state nonprofit organizations that already operate voter engagement and voter protection projects.

1. Stepping up organizing and engagement efforts

tram_nguyen_wide_caption whiteTram Nguyen works for one of those organizations, Virginia New Majority, which ran a statewide grassroots election program in 2012. Tram explains that, while the decision is a major blow, her organization has been anticipating and preparing for it.

Put simply, she expects the Court’s decision will create more work for her organization. In the new legal environment, the focus will be on stopping bad voting bills before they become law and equipping voters so they can cast their ballots.

“We are going to double down on our efforts to make elections as fair and as accessible as possible to all qualified voters,” says Tram. “I think that means stepping up our organizing and engaging more people in the struggle for civil rights.”

2. Challenging restrictive laws

States and jurisdictions previously covered by the Voting Rights Act no longer have to seek pre-approval for changes in voting laws before implementing them. And some states, like Texas and Mississippi, are wasting no time in moving forward with restrictive photo ID laws. Texas will also implement a highly controversial redistricting map. Virginia just passed a photo ID law that may go into effect.

Election law expert Rick Hasen told NPR he expected many states to now “flex their muscles, putting more controversial voting laws into place.” Tram stresses that opposing these laws is resource-intensive work.

“In the 2012 state legislature we were fighting 13 bills that dealt with making it harder to vote,” she says. “This past session that number tripled. So it’s not just money–it’s about time, it’s about engaging folks. And making that work a priority.”

3. Pushing for fixes to a broken election system

Virginia New Majority will also be ramping up its advocacy with state legislators and registrars to pass laws that make elections run more efficiently. Last year many voters in the state experienced “Election Day chaos.”

Tram says she hopes to work closely with the State Board of Elections to help them think through implementation of the new voter ID law. As we’ve reported in the past, mitigating the effects of restrictive voting laws is often the only recourse for voting rights advocates as these laws proliferate.

The to-do list in the post-Shelby County landscape is formidable. But Tram says her organization is up to the challenge:

“We won’t let anything deter us from exercising the right to vote.”

RELATED: Read analysis of the Shelby County decision.

From The Atlantic: 12 Voter Suppression Tactics Experts Worry Will Come Back