Emory Law Journal


It’s well-known that the federal Voting Rights Act is reeling. The Supreme Court nullified one of its two central provisions in 2013. The Court has also repeatedly weakened the bite of the statute’s other key section. Less familiar, though, is the recent rise of state voting rights acts (SVRAs): state-level enactments that provide more protection against racial discrimination in voting than does federal law. Eight states have passed SVRAs so far—five since 2018. Several more states are currently drafting SVRAs. Yet even though these measures are the most promising development in the voting rights field in decades, they have attracted little scholarly attention. They have been the subject of only a handful of political science studies and no sustained legal analysis at all.

In this Article, then, we provide the first descriptive, constitutional, and policy assessment of SVRAs. We first taxonomize SVRAs. That is, we catalogue how they diverge from, and build on, federal protections against racial vote denial, racial vote dilution, and retrogression. Second, we show that SVRAs are constitutional in that they don’t violate any branch of equal protection doctrine. They don’t constitute (or compel) racial gerrymandering, nor do they classify individuals on the basis of race, nor are they motivated by invidious racial purposes. Finally, while existing SVRAs are quite potent, we present an array of proposals that would make them even sharper swords against racial discrimination in voting. One suggestion is for SVRAs simply to mandate that localities switch to less discriminatory electoral laws—not to rely on costly, time-consuming, piecemeal litigation. Another idea is for SVRAs to allow each plaintiff to specify the benchmark relative to which racial vote dilution should be measured—not to stay mute on the critical issue of baselines.

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