‘Body Blow’ to Voting Rights Act Sparks Fears for 2024 Election

A court decision that only the U.S. government can sue to enforce the Voting Rights Act’s provisions has sparked a backlash with commentators raising concerns about its impact on upcoming elections.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and outlaws racial discrimination in voting. Campaign groups and citizens have typically been allowed to sue to enforce Section 2 of the civil rights law but now the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling has changed that.

In a 2-1 decision, the judges—all Republican appointees—ruled outside actors will not be able to bring legal action in the states the circuit court covers: Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“After reviewing the text, history, and structure of the Voting Rights Act, the district court concluded that private parties cannot enforce Section 2,” the judges wrote. “The enforcement power belonged solely to the Attorney General of the United States.”

Black voters
A member of the audience wearing a ‘Black Voters Still Matter’ T-shirt from Georgia NAACP during a Get Out the Vote rally December 3, 2022 in Hephzibah, Georgia. Sen. Commentators have reacted after an appeals court ruled that only the U.S. government can sue to enforce the Voting Rights Act’s provisions.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

While it only applies to states covered by the 8th Circuit, the ruling makes it “significantly harder to challenge voting rules in those states ahead of the 2024 election as long as this ruling stands,” Forbes noted.

Dina Titus, a Democratic Nevada congresswoman, said the decision “will open a door for the further disenfranchisement of voters.”

The ruling stemmed from a case brought by the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and Arkansas Public Policy Panel over new maps created during redistricting that the two groups allege amounted to racial gerrymandering, diluting the voting power of Black voters in the state. A lower-court judge ruled in early 2022 that he couldn’t decide the case on its merits because he found there was no private right of action, meaning they had no right to bring the lawsuit.

The appeals court decision reaffirmed that, but not everyone agreed. In his dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Lavenski Smith said: “Rights so foundational to self-government and citizenship should not depend solely on the discretion or availability of the government’s agents for protection.”

Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the civil rights organization Advancement Project, called the ruling a “body blow” to the act, writing on X, formerly Twitter, that it left Black people “unprotected from voter suppression.”

Speaking to CNN, she added that the decision was “outrageous” and said the court had “gone rogue.”

“The ruling has put the Voting Rights Act in jeopardy, and is very cavalierly tossing aside critical protections that voters have very much fought and died for,” Sophia Lin Lakin, the director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, who argued the case in front of the appellate court, told Politico.

“Eliminating individual people’s right to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act runs contrary to settled law, common sense and any basic concept of fairness: when the government discriminates against people, they should have a right to fight back in court,” Paul Smith, senior vice president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement.

Wendy Weiser, vice president for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote on X that the decision would “gut” voting protection and was “deeply wrong.”

Newsweek contacted the court by email for comment on this story.

However, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, hailed Monday’s ruling as helping to curb “meritless” challenges to states’ decisions on how to draw legislative maps and conduct elections.

“For far too long, courts across the country have allowed political activists to file meritless lawsuits seeking to seize control of how states conduct elections and redistricting,” he said in a statement. “This decision confirms that enforcement of the Voting Rights Act should be handled by politically accountable officials and not by outside special interest groups.”

Voting rights groups expect the ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.