In years past the U.S. Supreme Court weakened critical protections in the Voting Rights Act and Trump used the courts to launch wave after wave of election challenges based in fraudulent claims that were consistently proven false. However, the courts are still the best hope for protecting our democracy. Not only did courts throw out those fraudulent claims, but they are also striking down restrictive voting laws that have recently passed in states across the country.
The Democracy Maps has outlined seven cases to watch that will impact our democracy this year. Democracy Maps is an initiative of the Movement Advancement Project.
With all the recent election legislation being introduced in 2022, it is easy to overlook the critical role of the courts. While the courts have in some cases been used to weaken voting rights, and especially the Voting Rights Act, the courts as a whole have still remained our last and best defense against partisan attacks on America’s democracy.
The false narrative of a “stolen election” in 2020 emboldened many states and politicians to restrict voting and assert partisan influence over elections. In fact, there is an alarming trend of many states passing numerous voting restrictions, sometimes packaged together in an omnibus bill, to see how far they can restrict voting rights before the courts will hold them in check.
In 2020, the courts were the arena where widespread claims of voter fraud were proven false and without evidence. The 2020 election was the most litigated in the history of our country — with at least 400 election-related lawsuits filed. According to an analysis by the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, only two lawsuits brought by pro-Trump plaintiffs during the 2020 election cycle were successful — and neither of these complaints involved allegations of voter fraud.
This year the judicial branch is again acting to protect the right to vote by striking down overly restrictive voting laws passed in the states. A number of states have enacted an alarming variety and quantity of restrictive laws, relating to every aspect of election administration, from drop boxes to voting rights restoration for formerly incarcerated people.
So far in 2022, the vast majority of election-related court cases are challenging these newly enacted restrictions. Preliminary rulings issued in these cases by state and federal courts confirm that many states have gone too far in their efforts to restrict the right to vote.
These seven court cases could have a profound impact in shaping voting and elections in America.
Seven Cases to Watch in 2022
- Litigation over omnibus voting restrictions in Florida (League of Women Voters of Florida v. Lee): In perhaps the most significant case of 2022 so far, voting rights groups sued in federal court challenging Florida’s omnibus voting bill passed in 2021, specifically new restrictions on ballot drop boxes, mail ballots, and third-party voter registration drives. In a landmark decision, the federal district court judge struck down the challenged laws and also ruled that Florida violated the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against Black voters. The judge also placed Florida under federal preclearance provisions of the VRA for 10 years, which requires the state to seek court approval before passing any new laws related to the provisions overturned by the court. That decision was appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which put the district court ruling on hold while litigation continues.
See: Florida’s Democracy Map profile.
- Litigation over restrictive Arkansas voting laws (League of Women Voters of Arkansas v. Thurston): Voting rights groups in Arkansas brought a lawsuit challenging four restrictive voting laws passed in the state in 2021. These laws created overly restrictive ID requirements for in-person and mail voting, narrowed the window in which absentee ballots may be returned, and banned volunteers from providing food or water to voters waiting in line at a polling place. A trial was held in March of this year, after which the judge ruled that all four laws violate the Arkansas Constitution. The state appealed and the Arkansas Supreme Court issued a stay of the decision until they make their final ruling.
See: Arkansas’ Democracy Map profile.
- Litigation over Georgia’s registration, list maintenance and absentee ballot policies (Fair Fight Action v. Raffensperger): Fair Fight Action sued following Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election, challenging numerous facets of the state election system, including registration and list maintenance procedures as well absentee ballot policies. The case has advanced slowly, and a trial is currently in progress.
See: Georgia’s Democracy Map profile.
- Litigation over restrictions on voter assistance in Kansas (League of Women Voters of Kansas v. Schwab): Voting rights groups sued Kansas in 2021 challenging two new state laws which imposed harsh restrictions on third-party voter registration drives and voter assistance efforts. The state trial court denied the plaintiff’s initial request to prohibit enforcement of the law and litigation is ongoing in state appellate court.
See: Kansas’ Democracy Map profile.
- Legal dispute over North Carolina’s rights restoration system (Community Success Initiative v. Moore): In a case that shows how shifting court decisions have real impact on voters, civil rights groups brought suit challenging North Carolina’s felony disenfranchisement law, which requires completion of probation/parole and payment of all related fees before voting rights are restored. The state trial court initially ruled the restrictions were unlawful and allowed more than 55,000 people to have their rights immediately restored. The North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the voting restrictions until the outcome of a full trial in the lower court. The lower court struck down the law in its entirety, again allowing voters to have their rights restored. The state appeals court then stayed this decision, which will keep the challenged law in place for the time being as litigation continues. The case is back before the state Supreme Court.
See: North Carolina’s Democracy Map profile.
- Litigation over Pennsylvania’s absentee voting law (McLinko v. Degraffenreid): Plaintiffs brought suit challenging Pennsylvania’s entire system of no-excuse absentee voting which was enacted in 2019, alleging the law violated the state constitution in that voters are required under the constitution to vote in person. Following trial, the lower court agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled the law unconstitutional, striking it down in its entirety. The decision was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who put the lower court ruling on hold until they reach a final decision. Oral arguments were held in March; a decision is expected before November.
See: Pennsylvania’s Democracy Map profile.
- Litigation over Wisconsin’s ban of ballot drop boxes (Teigen v. Wisconsin Elections Commission): Conservative groups filed suit challenging the legality of the use of ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin, requesting that drop boxes be banned entirely. The trial court entered summary judgment, agreeing with plaintiffs and banning drop boxes. The case was appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and oral arguments were held in April, with the ultimate decision set to effect upcoming elections in the state.
See: Wisconsin’s Democracy Map profile.
The cases discussed above, as well as numerous other lawsuits sure to be brought this year, will have a profound impact on state and federal elections in 2022. As states continue to pass increasingly restrictive voting laws, courts may stand as the last defense to the right to vote. If current voting restrictions are upheld by legal rulings, dangerous precedents will be set for future litigation, and additional states will be empowered to pass more restrictions in the future.
MAP will continue to provide relevant updates on litigation, and once a final decision is issued or a ruling is left in effect for an election, we will update our Democracy Maps accordingly. Sign up to receive Democracy Maps updates by email.