How the Supreme Court Is Undermining Voting Rights: Your Questions Answered

An election law expert responds to questions from Bolts readers on how the court is affecting democracy and what comes next—from threats to the VRA to his hopes for repair.

Ask Bolts   |    May 15, 2024

A demonstrator holds a sign during a voting rights rally at the U.S. Supreme Court (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Few institutions affect our elections as much as the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently led by John Roberts, who burst onto the political scene in the 1980s hell-bent on weakening the Voting Rights Act, the Court has continually chipped away at U.S. democracy in recent decades. A new book coming out this week reconstructs that history.

Written by election law expert Joshua Douglas, The Court v. the Voters: The Troubling Story of How the Supreme Court Has Undermined Voting Rights dives into nine landmark cases in which the court undercut U.S. democracy. These include Citizens United, which struck down campaign finance regulations, and Rucho, which shrugged away partisan gerrymandering.

The country is now approaching an election in which the Supreme Court is poised to play an unusually large role, with uncertainty around what will be left of the VRA, what congressional maps will be used, and how justices will respond to lawsuits around the presidential results. 

At Bolts, we suspected that our readers may be trying to make sense of the legal landscape today with regards to voting rights. So last week, we asked you to share your questions about the Supreme Court’s ongoing effect on voting rights—and how the damage may be repaired. And Douglas agreed to respond to them.

Floored by all the submissions we received on social media and on our website, we struggled to narrow the list down but finally settled on eleven questions to pose to Douglas, from big-picture inquiries to some that dive into the weeds of election law.

Below, Douglas answers Bolts readers. He identifies the Supreme Court cases you may never have heard of despite their role in undermining voting rights, assesses where VRA protections may go from here, explains why he thinks ranked choice voting is safe for now, and much more.

Voting rights today: How we got here

There are two cases that hardly anyone has heard of but that have had a major impact on the way the Supreme Court treats the constitutional right to vote: Anderson v. Celebrezze, in 1983, and Burdick v. Takushi, in 1992. Anderson dealt with the desire of an independent candidate to gain ballot access after a state’s deadline for turning in enough signatures. Burdick was about an individual’s attempt to write-in a candidate instead of choosing one of the candidates listed on the ballot. (These two cases are the subjects of Chapters 1 and 2 of my new book.) But the specific disputes in these cases are less important than the judicial test that came out of them.

These two cases began the Supreme Court’s descent into its underprotection of the right to vote by failing to apply the highest judicial standard, known as strict scrutiny. 

Previously, the court in the 1960s had strongly protected voters by requiring a state to prove that it had a really good reason for a law that infringed upon the right to vote, and that the law actually achieved that goal. But in Anderson, the court began to weaken that test, instead balancing the burden that a law imposes on voters with a state’s interests in regulating the election as it wishes. Burdick went further, accepting a state’s desire to run its election as it sees fit. These two cases comprise what election scholars call the “AndersonBurdick” balancing test. 

Now, states no longer have to explain, with specificity, their reasons for a law to have the Supreme Court uphold its voting regulation. As far as this court is concerned, a state can simply offer a more general assertion that it’s looking to “prevent voter fraud” or “ease election administration,”  even when doing so is at the expense of voters’ easy access to the ballot.

This question goes to a broader point: The Supreme Court has failed to protect the constitutional right to vote and instead has unduly deferred to state rules on election administration, even when these rules infringe upon voters’ rights. 

In recent decades, the court has routinely credited state assertions of their desire to root out voter fraud, even when the state has zero evidence that there are real election integrity concerns. On voter ID specifically, in its 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the court rejected a challenge to Indiana’s ID law, saying that the plaintiffs had not presented enough evidence that the rules imposed a burden on voters. At the same time, it accepted the state’s generalized assertions of its desire to prevent in-person impersonation, even though Indiana could not point to a single example of this kind of voter fraud in its history. That is why, as I argue in the book, the court’s approach to the constitutional right to vote is backward.

It is hard to see what the successful legal challenge might be to ranked choice voting, and lower courts have already rejected some theories. In one case out of San Francisco, plaintiffs argued that ranked choice voting violated the concept of “one-person, one-vote” by giving voters the chance to choose multiple candidates. The court rejected the challenge because in the end each ballot is counted only once for one candidate. 

There was, however, a successful challenge to ranked choice voting in Maine, though it was brought under Maine’s state constitution, which explicitly says that the winner of state elections is the candidate with the most votes. That’s why Maine does not use ranked choice voting for the general election for governor, state senator, or state representative, even though it uses it for federal elections. But courts rejected other legal challenges to ranked choice voting in Maine.

At the founding the voting age was 21, which simply came from English common law. But 21 was essentially a historical accident: in medieval times, 21 was the age that men were thought strong enough to wear a suit of heavy armor and therefore entered adulthood. In the U.S., there was a long movement to lower the voting age to 18, starting around the time of World War II and increasing during the Vietnam War. Congress tried to lower the voting age to 18 for all elections, but the Supreme Court struck down the provision as it applied to state and local elections in Oregon v. Mitchell in 1970. That decision spurred Congress and the states to enact and ratify the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18 for all elections. 

Interestingly, although the amendment says that states cannot deny the right to vote to those 18 and older, it does not prohibit states or localities from lowering the voting age further. Several jurisdictions in California and Maryland have set a voting age of 16 for local or school board elections. And several states allow 17-olds to vote in the primary if they will be 18 by Election Day. There is nothing unconstitutional about these rules, at least under the U.S. Constitution.

A public plaque on the Voting Rights Act in Selma, Alabama (Adam Jones / Flickr)

Threats to the Voting Rights Act and redistricting reform

The Allen v. Milligan case was helpful to ensure stronger minority representation within a map, but the case itself did not make any new law. The court simply refused Alabama’s extreme argument to overturn decades of precedent in how the court construes Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits a voting practice (including redistricting) that has the effect of harming minority voters. As for Texas, the question is whether the map has sufficient minority representation, and there has been a lot of litigation on that front; the Allen v. Milligan ruling kept lawsuits like this alive but it did not create new precedent to help plaintiffs.

The courts have long agreed that there is a private right of action under the Voting Rights Act for an individual or group to sue a governmental entity for violating the law. But several lower courts, most prominently the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, have recently questioned that rule, spurred by a comment that Justice Neil Gorsuch made in a concurring opinion in Brnovich v. DNC in 2021. Contrary to all history and precedent, the Eighth Circuit ruled that only the federal Department of Justice can bring suit under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. (Editor’s note: Bolts reported on this and other emerging threats to the VRA in January.)

That issue might reach the U.S. Supreme Court soon, and if the court agrees with the Eighth Circuit, then it will be much harder to effectuate equal voting rights, as the Department of Justice does not have the resources to bring many cases. The bottom line: if the court agrees that there is no private right of action under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, then you will likely see many fewer lawsuits that challenge unfair voting rules, and states will have even further leeway to regulate their elections without meaningful judicial oversight. 

(Editor’s note: Arizonans set up an independent redistricting commission through a ballot initiative; but this case argued that redistricting power belongs to lawmakers, and that the citizens-led initiative improperly wrestled it from the legislature. The court rejected that theory on a 5-4 vote.)

If new challenges emerge to these commissions, the votes are probably there to strike them down, though there are reasons to think the Supreme Court might not go that far. 

That Arizona case was 5-4 with Chief Justice John Roberts writing a vigorous dissent. Justice Anthony Kennedy was in the majority in that case and now Justice Brett Kavanaugh is in the seat. And, of course, Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion in 2015. So it’s quite possible that the court could strike down independent redistricting commissions, at least for drawing congressional lines, saying that under the U.S. Constitution only the state “legislature” can engage in redistricting. 

That said, the court rejected a similar argument last year that only a state legislature can promulgate voting rules in Moore v. Harper, the case about the independent state legislature theory. That could be a saving grace for these initiative-created commissions: I could see enough justices refusing to go down the path of explicitly overturning both the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission and Moore v. Harper decisions.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion Allen vs. Milligan joined by Justice Elena Kagan. (Steve Petteway, photographer for the Supreme Court of the United States/Wikimedia Commons)

What can be done to bolster democracy?

The Supreme Court has still upheld disclosure requirements for campaign finance. In fact, in Citizens United, the 2010 case that I cover in chapter 5 of my book, the court voted 8-1 to uphold the disclosure requirements of federal law, with only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting. So, I think both Congress and state legislatures could enact more robust disclosure rules. That would not stop the flow of money in campaigns, but it could close some of the loopholes that allow groups to hide behind fictitious names or organizations.

Of course, the political problem remains, in that Congress and many state legislatures do not have the political will to enact stronger disclosure rules.

(Editor’s note: Section 1 of the 15th Amendment says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Section 2 adds: “The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”)

The problem with using the 15th Amendment is that the Supreme Court has long said that plaintiffs must prove intentional discrimination to invoke that amendment. That is why Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is more powerful: it prohibits both discriminatory intent and discriminatory impact or effect. Unless the court changes its case law on the Fifteenth Amendment, it is hard to use that provision to protect voting rights unless there is clear evidence of a discriminatory intent, which is difficult to prove. 

Section 2 of that Amendment authorizes Congress to act, but the court has also narrowly construed a similar provision of the Fourteenth Amendment to say that any federal legislation must be “congruent and proportional” to the harm Congress is trying to address, which is a restrictive standard.

State courts are a great source of stronger voting rights protection, especially given that state constitutions go much further than the U.S. Constitution in conferring and protecting the right to vote. Virtually all state constitutions explicitly grant the right to vote, and, as I’ve written in recent scholarship, state constitutions have several provisions that collectively elevate the status of voters. 

The key is for state courts to use those provisions and not simply follow U.S. Supreme Court case law. Some state courts have construed their state constitutions to be in “lockstep” with the U.S. Constitution and federal case law, meaning that they simply follow U.S. Supreme Court precedent even though their state constitutions go beyond the U.S. Constitution in protecting voters. In my view, that approach is wrong given the stronger protection for voters within state constitutions. That is, state courts should be more protective of voting rights.

Take the issue of gerrymandering: Several courts, such as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court, have gone beyond the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to address partisan gerrymandering by pointing to more specific language in their state constitutions. But other state courts have adopted the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause that issues of partisan gerrymandering are not for the courts to resolve. If neither federal courts nor state courts will address partisan gerrymandering, however, then there are few outlets for voters to vindicate their right to a fair election.

I think that the best path to securing stronger voting rights in the current climate—especially given restrictive rulings from the Supreme Court—is to focus on local, grassroots movements to expand voting opportunities. As I discuss in my 2019 book, Vote for US, there are many examples of individuals working in communities all over the country to make our elections more convenient, inclusive, and democratic. Many movements, including women’s suffrage, vote-by-mail, ranked choice voting, and others started at the local level and then spread to other places. 

For example, I love the efforts of the organization VoteRiders, which helps people obtain IDs so they can vote. Having a valid ID also assists them in so many other aspects of their lives. I am also impressed with a local group in my own community in Kentucky, CivicLex, which helps members of the community understand and engage with local government. [Full disclosure: I am a Board member of CivicLex.] The National Vote at Home Institute does great work in promoting expanded vote-by-mail policies.

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