Since 1963, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has been at the forefront of the legal struggle to protect and defend the right to vote, and to ensure that the right is afforded equally to all. Through coordinated and integrated programs of litigation, voter protection, advocacy and education, the Voting Rights Project has had a tremendous positive impact on communities of color, low-income communities, youth, people with disabilities and other traditionally disenfranchised populations.
Using Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution, we litigate cases on behalf of voters who are traditionally disenfranchised or face the fiercest voter suppression tactics.
Case: League of Women Voters of South Carolina v. Andino
In South Carolina, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, The Family Unit and two voters against South Carolina state election officials for failing to allow absentee ballot voters to correct minor issues with their absentee ballot envelopes. The lawsuit claimed that South Carolina’s lack of notice and cure process for missing and mismatched signatures violated voters’ due process rights, and would lead to a large number of eligible voters being disenfranchised in the November 2020 election. South Carolina election law requires officials to reject any absentee ballot that is missing a signature, and they are not required to notify voters if this happens.
A preliminary injunction was successfully obtained shortly before the November 2020 election from United States District Court Judge Mark Gergel on their signature mismatch claim. Judge Gergel’s order prohibits any South Carolina county from rejecting an absentee ballot based on an allegedly mismatched signature.
The state appealed that order to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments were held in late January, and the parties are awaiting a ruling.
Case: Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, et al. v. Gwinnett County Board of Registration and Elections
In April 2020, the national Lawyers’ Committee filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, New Georgia Project and Common Cause against election officials with Gwinnett County and the Georgia Secretary of State. The lawsuit alleged that Gwinnett County voters were mailed English-only absentee ballot applications even though the county is covered for the Spanish language under Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 203 protects Gwinnett County’s Spanish-speaking citizens, giving them a right to have access to Spanish-language voting materials. The lawsuit also alleged that, to access a Spanish version of the Board of Registrations and Elections website, individuals must first navigate and scroll through an English-only version to locate and click on a small box in the bottom right-hand corner that says ‘English.’ Even if Spanish-speaking individuals are able to reach the computer-generated Spanish translation, it is poorly written and riddled with errors that misinform voters and could prevent them from being able to navigate the election process.
Judge William M. Ray of the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction and dismissed the original lawsuit, which the plaintiffs have appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The plaintiffs filed their Eleventh Circuit brief in early February 2021 and have asked for oral argument on the appeal once it has been fully briefed by all parties.
Case: League of Women Voters of Arkansas v. Thurston
In September, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and co-counsel filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas Secretary of State and several election commissioners in to prevent absentee ballot voters from being disenfranchised in the November 2020 election and beyond. The lawsuit argues that the lack of notice and cure process for correcting minor issues on absentee ballots is unconstitutional and disenfranchises a large number of eligible voters. The lawsuit asks the court to require officials to begin reviewing absentee ballots 15 days before the election, so they can provide voters a chance to fix any alleged discrepancies. The lawsuit also asks that certain ballots be counted if the alleged mistake or omission is immaterial to election officials’ ability to determine the voter’s eligibility.
Arkansas election law requires election officials to reject any ballot that is missing a voters’ signature or if officials perceive a difference between the signature, address, or date-of-birth on the voters’ absentee ballot and absentee ballot application materials, those ballots are disqualified as well. Election officials do not start counting absentee ballots until election day, so voters whose absentee ballots are rejected are not notified of that fact until well after the election is over.
The Lawyers’ Committee and co-counsel sought a preliminary injunction before the November 2020 election, which was denied by the judge. The case is still before the US District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.
Case: Arctic Village Council et al. v Meyer et al.
In Alaska, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit to waive the witness signature provision on absentee ballots for the 2020 general election, arguing that it is unconstitutional and places too great a burden on the right to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. Allowing the witness signature requirement to stand could have disenfranchised thousands of eligible Alaskan voters, in particular, the vulnerable Alaska Native population, who could not risk contact with other individuals to vote in-person or were under a strict stay-at-home order as was the case with many tribes protecting their populations or could not risk exposure to obtain a witness signature on their absentee ballots.
The Alaska Superior Court for the Third District at Anchorage ruled that the witness signature is unconstitutional and must be waived for the 2020 election. The state appealed the trial court’s ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court, but the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the ruling requiring the state to conduct voter outreach to notify prospective voters about the change.
Case: A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Hargett
In Tennessee, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and co-counsel filed a lawsuit, seeking to block a law that prevents voters who registered by mail and have never before voted in an election in Tennessee from voting by absentee ballots the first time they vote (“first-time voters”) and requiring these voters to vote in person. The lawsuit argues that these restrictions are burdensome, and sought to extend the ability to vote by absentee ballot to first-time voters for the 2020 election. In addition, the lawsuit stated that in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Tennessee needed to encourage the use of vote-by-mail to ensure the health and safety of voters, not attempt to limit it.
A district court judge ruled that the law must be blocked, expanding vote-by-mail to thousands of first-time voters. The state filed an emergency stay of the district court’s decision in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which was denied, allowing first-time voters to request absentee ballots in the November general election. Oral arguments were held in December, and the case remains pending.
Case: New Virginia Majority Education Fund, et al. v. Virginia Dept. of Elections, et al.
In October, on the last day Virginians could register to vote for the 2020 election, the state’s online voter registration website crashed. The national Lawyers’ Committee and co-counsel immediately filed emergency litigation to extend the voter registration deadline for 48 hours, and to extend the early-voting period by one day. The lawsuit also asked the state of Virginia to make a significant effort to inform the public about this change.
District Court Judge John Gibney granted the 48-hour extension, and ruled that the state must take all actions necessary to inform the public of the extension. More than 24,000 additional Virginians registered to vote during the extended period.
Policy & Advocacy
Since the U.S. Supreme Court unwisely ruled that Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional in 2013, efforts to suppress the vote have taken off, especially in marginalized communities. The urgency has mounted for Congress and state legislatures to pass new voting rights bills to safeguard access to the ballot box. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law supports several pieces of legislation, at both the state and national level, that will expand access to the ballot box.
H.R. 1, the For the People Act:
H.R.1, the For the People Act, has been introduced in the 117th Congress. The legislation is transformative and will restore the voting rights of millions of Americans. The For the People Act would ensure that every American has an equal opportunity to vote without the overly burdensome requirements currently used to restrict voting.
H.R.1 would require every state to:
- Create an online voter registration system and allow same-day voter registration;
- Offer at least 15 consecutive days of early voting;
- Place early voting locations near public transportation and order them to be open for 10 hours a day; and
- Automatically register to vote any eligible unregistered citizens.
The For the People Act would also ban discriminatory voter purges and eliminate burdensome voter ID laws.
H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act:
The national Lawyers’ Committee supports and endorses H.R.4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, because it would restore the critical preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Modern forms of voting discrimination – including restrictive voter ID laws and polling place closures – may not be as blatant as poll taxes and literacy tests, but they are just as deliberately effective at suppressing the vote. H.R.4 would significantly expand protections for voters and halt several modern barriers to the ballot box.
The Voting Rights Act of Virginia:
The Virginia State Senate and House of Delegates has passed the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, a key step in ensuring all voters in the commonwealth have equal access to voting. The bill will provide citizens with notice of and the ability to bring a private right of action to challenge potentially discriminatory actions in addition to allowing preclearance review of voting changes by the attorney general of Virginia. Virginia has already enacted important legislation to repeal discriminatory voter ID requirements, expand early voting and implement automatic voter registration.
The Value My Vote Act:
The Maryland State Legislature is considering the Value My Vote Act, which would give incarcerated persons the right to vote. Oftentimes, individuals in jail are automatically disenfranchised by state and local officials because they are prevented from accessing voter registration or absentee ballot materials, or they are provided misinformation about their eligibility to vote while in jail. The Value My Vote Act would make certain that all incarcerated Marylanders would have access to the necessary resources to cast their ballot, no matter where they are in the criminal justice system.
H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admissions Act
In a historic vote last June, the House of Representatives voted to grant Washington, D.C. statehood. The bill stalled in the Senate, but has been introduced again in the 117th Congress.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law endorses H.R.51 and supports D.C. statehood. This law would enfranchise more than 700,000 people and finally provide the residents of the District of Columbia with representation in the houses of Congress.
We convene the national, non-partisan Election Protection hotline, which is made up of over 300 national, state and local partners. Election Protection provides any American with comprehensive assistance at all stages of voting. If you experience barriers to the ballot box, or have any questions about voting, Election Protection is available and ready to help.
To reach Election Protection, you can:
- Call our suite of voter helplines:
- 888-VE-Y-VOTA (Spanish/English)
- 844-YALLA-US (Arabic/English)
- 888-API-VOTE (English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali)
- Text MYVOTE to 866-687-8683 to get voting help from a trained volunteer
- Start a conversation with us on Twitter or Facebook Messenger at @866ourvote, and on WhatsApp (http://wa.me/18666878683)
- Chat with us live on the Election Protection website.