What’s behind the big drop in voting rights lawsuits?

Creative Commons photo by Charel Flickr user Charleston's TheDigitel

Creative Commons photo by Charel Flickr user Charleston's TheDigitel

In the months before a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the number of voting rights lawsuits being filed was noteworthy. But federal civil filings challenging voting rights abuses dropped 25 percent from May 2013 to June 2013, and there were 36.7 percent fewer cases than the same period a year ago, according to the Transaction Records Access Clearinghouse, a records collection project run out of Syracuse University. And, this past June, only nine new lawsuits were filed under the Civil Rights category of Voting Rights.

At the same time, voting rights groups have continued to say that voting rights are coming under attack. Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court ruling that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional, five states began moving forward with voter ID laws like those that had been struck down in 2012.

Two civil rights groups--The Advancement Project and North Carolina NAACP--filed a lawsuit on Aug. 14 challenging a voter ID law in North Carolina that they say would affect minority voting rights. Texas’ law, seen as the strictest, requires a voter to present proof of citizenship and residency in the state through either a passport or a birth certificate, two documents many low-income Americans may not have in their possession.

And, so why aren’t we seeing more legal attacks on voting rights restrictions? The Chicago Reporter checked in with Marissa Liebling, a staff attorney at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to get some answers.

Liebling was reluctant to pronounce any long-term trends based on the decline in voting rights lawsuit filings. But she did note that lawsuits were more likely to be brought during an election year--especially a highly contested one like the 2012 presidential election. The TRAC numbers show that the first and second highest number of lawsuits occurred, respectively, in the falls of 2008 and 2012.

But even the peak of fall 2008, when more than 30 lawsuits were brought in federal court, seems to understate how big of an issue advocates say voting rights abuses really are. Estimates of registered voters who did not have appropriate ID, from states that attempted to sign into law voter ID legislation, numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Data from a 2012 lawsuit the State of Texas filed against U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder found that 795,955 registered voters  wouldn’t have had the appropriate ID to vote if the law had been passed. In South Carolina, 293,000 registered voters wouldn’t have had an ID that would have passed that state’s bar if it had passed a voter ID law.

So why the decreasing number of lawsuits? One reason, Liebling says, is that low-income people and people of color are most likely to be affected but may not have access to an attorney to file their complaint. And even for non-profits like the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, litigating these cases takes scare resources.

“We are at a time where community groups and civil rights organizations are looking at what are the best strategies to move forward to protect minority voting rights,” Liebling says. Some of these alternate strategies include running voter hotlines staffed with volunteers and collecting information on restrictive voting measures all year round.

But that doesn’t mean actions are over in the courtroom, Liebling says. “Unfortunately, discriminatory election practices will continue to exist, if not flourish, in the wake of the [Supreme Court] decision. However, there are still legal tools available to address these problems. Many groups like ours are working as hard as ever to make sure all citizens have full and fair access to casting a ballot.”

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  • Has Liebling filed any in Illinois, such as over the gerrymandered congressional reapportionment? Or is the answer no, because it extended presumably black majority districts well into Kankakee and Will counties, for instance? Is she part of the lawsuit challenging the politicization of the Lake County elections system (apparently unconstitutionally)? Apparently some worry only about the preclearance states, not Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Illinois.

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