Over the past two decades, lawyers acting pro bono have fought to protect the rights of marginalized individuals to exercise one of their most basic freedoms—the right to vote.
Despite the protections offered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the country’s most far-reaching civil rights laws, a large number of states have sought to restrict some voters’ access to the polls by means of overly restrictive and discriminatory voting laws. Litigation to challenge those laws has become more urgent since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder, opening the way for individual states to enact voting measures.
Since then, 19 states have restricted voter access to the polls by means of voter ID laws, voter-roll purges and barriers to early voting that have effectively disenfranchised millions of U.S. citizens. The effects of these laws have fallen heaviest on the poor and marginalized.
Acting pro bono, attorneys from several law firms have sought to overturn or reform restrictive voting laws by legislative means. Their efforts have formed part of a wider constitutional campaign supported by the ACLU, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos, and other civil rights groups.
“It is our collective responsibility to ensure that all eligible citizens can vote safely and securely,” says Dechert’s Neil Steiner, who has successfully challenged discriminatory laws across several states. “Ensuring that every citizen’s voice is heard and valued – regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status – lies at the heart of our democracy.”
Some lawsuits have sought to enforce the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to distribute registration forms every time individuals fill out applications for public assistance such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Other efforts have challenged restrictive voter identification laws or addressed the systematic deprivation of voting rights of large classes of registered voters.
Most recently, lawyers have challenged discriminatory redistricting maps, which threaten to disenfranchise marginalized communities in several states and major cities. “Ensuring fair representation through unbiased redistricting is essential to preserving the fair representation our constitution protects,” said Dechert’s Angela Liu, who helped the firm organize and lead challenges in Arkansas, Georgia and Texas on behalf of state affiliates of the NAACP, League of Women Voters and Common Cause.
Last year, Dechert lawyers also filed amicus briefs in two critical U.S. Supreme Court voting rights cases, arguing that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act is the last standing federal statutory protection and effective bulwark against the practice of diluting the votes of persons of color—and that the so-called “independent state legislature theory” undermines the constitutional system of checks and balances. The firm also partnered with the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center to ensure that hundreds of Cobb County, Georgia voters could still vote in last year’s midterms after the county Board of Elections failed to mail absentee ballots, and worked alongside LatinoJustice to ensure Spanish-language ballot access in York County, Pennsylvania.
As the nation heads into a new election cycle, it is important that we all remain informed and engaged in the fight to protect the right to vote, believes Liu. By supporting organizations such as Election Protection, a national, nonpartisan coalition, ordinary citizens can play a vital part by helping voters from home or in person, or by tracking online disinformation. “Simply staying vigilant against attempts to undermine the electoral process can help preserve the integrity of our democracy,” says Liu. “That’s the best way to ensure that every voice is heard.”