To understand why state VRAs are so crucial today, it’s first important to consider why voting rights protections were, and continue to be, necessary in the first place. Although they create protections for all voters, state-level voting laws are an especially important tool for racial justice. By building on the federal VRA with legal tools designed to counter modern forms of discrimination in voting, state VRAs can help fulfill the federal law’s original promise of ensuring equal access to the ballot box regardless of race, color, or language.
During the Jim Crow era, Black people, particularly in the South, effectively did not have the right to vote, despite the protections of the 15th Amendment. White supremacist state lawmakers erected significant obstacles to voting, including poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions to deny Black people the ability to vote. Even worse, some members of the public, law enforcement, and even elected officials attempted to suppress Black voters through harassment, intimidation, economic retaliation, and physical violence when they tried to register or vote. The result was unsurprising — few Black people were registered to vote, and they had little to no political power.
Although they may look different from the Jim Crow era, today’s vote suppression tactics continue to target and disproportionately harm voters of color. Even today, people of color are more likely than white people to face hurdles to accessing the ballot box, such as longer wait times and polling place consolidations, and are also disproportionately affected by aforementioned obstacles to voting, like strict voter ID laws and limitations on voting by mail. These barriers contribute to a racial disparity in voter turnout, which skyrocketed following the 2013 Shelby County decision.
In fact, “Turnout disparities between white and Black voters increased substantially in Shelby’s aftermath in five out of the six states fully covered under the VRA’s preclearance protections,” LDF Deputy Director of Litigation Deuel Ross indicated in his written testimony submitted to the United States House Committee on House Administration’s Subcommittee on Elections for a May 2023 hearing. As Ross pointed out, in Alabama pre-Shelby (in 2012), Black and white voter turnout was nearly the same, but in, 2020, Black turnout fell almost eight percentage points behind white turnout. And, in 2022, substantial disparities between Black and white turnout compared with previous recent elections persisted and increased, including in Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, and North Carolina, Ross noted.
The weakening of the federal Voting Rights Act means that state VRAs will need to fill a bigger hole than ever before, both as we wait for the restoration of comprehensive federal voting rights legislation — but also even when this legislation is passed. Although state VRAs take inspiration from the federal law, they are guided by the maxim that the states are the laboratories of democracy. Each one looks a little different from the others — an effort to build on the federal VRA by adapting different legal tools to each state’s unique circumstances to protect voting rights most effectively.