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Experience January/February 2024

Gen Z’s Right to Vote

Ruth Greenwood and Adam Harper


  • Election law has changed over the last decade. What will access to voting look like in the future? We take a look.
Gen Z’s Right to Vote Productions

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President Lyndon B. Johnson famously said that “every device of which human ingenuity is capable” has been used to deny the right to vote. On the campaign trail last year, Indian American entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy—polling poorly in the Republican Primary as of this writing— proposed to raise the voting age to 26 (that restriction would violate the 26th Amendment).

Ramaswamy’s proposal can hardly be compared to the election laws of the 1960s south. But it illustrates an important point: More than half a century after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many Americans still believe fewer people should be able to vote.

Many states have and are moving to make that a reality, while others are expanding access to the ballot boxes.

The Supreme Court decimates the VRA

Our story begins 10 years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court weakened portions of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder, prompting a slew of restrictive voting measures.

The crown jewel of the Voting Rights Act was a measure known as preclearance, which required certain “covered” jurisdictions—those with a history of discriminatory election laws—to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before changing their electoral system. As originally enacted, preclearance would expire in five years. An overwhelming majority of Congress reauthorized it in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006.

Preclearance stopped voting discrimination before it could be implemented. Between 1965 and 2013, more than 800 proposed election changes were altered or withdrawn because they were found to have a “retrogressive effect” on racial or language minority voting rights. Many of these election changes made it harder for everyone to vote, not only racial minorities.

However, in 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County held that the VRA’s formula for determining which jurisdictions were “covered” was unconstitutional, rendering preclearance effectively inoperable.

States quickly restrict access to voting

While some laws restricting voter access predate Shelby County, the sheer volume of laws passed after Shelby County marked a significant turning point for voting rights in the United States. After Shelby County, states wasted no time implementing election changes that hadn’t or might not have survived the preclearance requirement.

The very day Shelby County was decided, then Texas attorney general, now its governor, Greg Abbott, announced he would implement a strict photo ID law previously blocked by preclearance for its anticipated discriminatory impact. A day later, the chairman of the North Carolina Senate Rules Committee announced that North Carolina would be moving forward with an omnibus law imposing multiple voting restrictions.

North Carolina’s House Bill 589 created a strict photo ID requirement, eliminated same-day voter registrations, and eliminated pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, among other things.

These laws were challenged in court under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which provides a cause of action for election changes that have a discriminatory impact. After years of resource-intensive litigation, both Texas and North Carolina’s laws were found to violate Section 2. North Carolina was also found to have violated the 14th Amendment’s prohibition on intentional racial discrimination. In the meantime, untold numbers of voters were burdened or entirely disenfranchised because the laws remained in place while the cases were pending.

In total, at least 29 states have passed 94 restrictive voting laws since Shelby County, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan nonprofit that catalogs voting laws.

The type of voting restriction matters

Not all restrictive voting laws are created equal. Some, like North Carolina’s, are omnibus bills with provisions that make it harder to vote in myriad ways. After the 2020 election, Georgia passed a similar bill that significantly limited the availability of drop boxes and restricted access to mail voting by imposing stricter identification requirements than were already in place. One of the bill’s cosponsors penned an op-ed arguing that unreliable ballots changed the outcome of certain races in the 2020 election.

Other states have enacted one or two restrictive provisions, but, in general, many states have expanded voting access more than they’ve restricted it. New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Utah are among these states.

There is growing evidence that restrictive voting laws have reduced voter turnout and disproportionately impacted voters of color.

After North Carolina enacted its law, researchers looked specifically at the turnout of people without proper photo ID, and they found that the enactment of the law significantly reduced turnout, which continued even after the photo ID laws were repealed. In Texas, researchers found strict photo ID laws will stop otherwise willing registered voters from voting, with a disproportionate effect on voters of color.

The point is that the type of voting restriction matters. Not that all voter ID laws are bad; in fact, the bipartisan Help America Vote Act requires some form of ID for first-time voters. Rather, research suggests that strict photo ID laws are neither necessary to ensure ballot integrity nor effective at reducing perceptions of voter fraud. Some states have made it easier to vote by permitting the use a different form of ID—like a bank statement or utility bill, along with a signed affidavit.

Voting restrictions have widespread effects

While one recent political science article has suggested that these laws may not actually affect the winner of elections, that’s largely beside the point. Shelby County and later cases like Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee emboldened supporters of more restrictive election laws, whatever their motivations. And the effect was to enact laws that disproportionately burden or disenfranchise voters of color (the very voters preclearance was designed to protect).

Laws affecting the right to vote can’t be viewed in a vacuum. For much of our history, the United States categorically denied racial and ethnic minorities the right to vote. Many of today’s restrictive measures interact with a host of historical and sociological circumstances to sharpen their impact on people of color.

And yet, racial discrimination—while a crucial part of the story—isn’t the full story. Research has shown that the measures passed in the last decade have made voting harder for everyone. Not only racial minorities but also university students, elderly folk, houseless and housing-insecure persons, seasonal migrant workers, married people who change their surnames, the list goes on.

More restrictive laws proposed

The nationwide push to restrict voting has moved at a near-record pace this year, driven in part by an active election-denier movement. According to the Brennan Center, at least 322 restrictive bills have been introduced in 45 states in 2023 alone. Of these, 34 bills are still moving through state legislatures.

For example, a new law in Oklahoma risks purging voters from the rolls based on unreliable information. And one of several proposals in Texas will increase the maximum number of voters that can be assigned to a polling place, which can only increase the likelihood of longer lines and make it harder for local officials to administer elections.

Local election officials are vital to ensuring free and fair elections. A study published last year found that in some battleground states, more than half of the local election administrators will be new since the last presidential race.

Many of the 2023 proposals consist of well-known tools that make it harder to vote, like voter ID laws, reduced early voting, restrictions to mail-in voting, and voter roll purging.

However—to echo President Johnson—state legislatures are also inventing new ways to limit voter access and power.

One alarming trend involves proposals that target direct democracy by limiting ways that voters can pass ballot measures. Arkansas, North Dakota, and Ohio legislators approved measures seeking to make it harder for citizens to initiate or pass ballot measures at a time when reproductive justice advocates have begun to take advantage of the initiative process to enshrine state protections. In August, Ohio’s proposal to raise the threshold needed to pass a ballot measure from a simple majority to 60 percent was put to the electorate, which rejected it.

State legislatures are also taking aim at local power over traditionally local functions, like election administration. One Texas proposal would authorize the secretary of state to exercise indefinite oversight over Harris County election administration, echoing Georgia’s omnibus voter bill, which gave the state election board the authority to suspend and replace local election officials. Harris County is the home of Houston, the third-most populous county in the country.

In Mississippi, the state supreme court recently struck down a portion of a new law that created additional state-appointed judges to rule on cases in Hinds County, which contains the state’s majority-Black capital, Jackson. 2018 was the first year that all four of Hinds County’s elected judges were Black.

Diluting the influence of voters of color

Some election proposals dilute, rather than deny, the right to vote. The 2020 redistricting cycle is shaping up to be the most litigated redistricting cycle in the nation’s history. Since 2020, 74 cases have been filed challenging congressional and state legislative maps in 27 states, of which 45 remain pending, according to the Brennan Center.

Legislative maps in much of the country, and especially the South, continue to skew significantly in favor of the political party that drew them. New maps across the country will have fewer competitive districts than at any point in the last five decades.

Racial minorities—who fueled the country’s population growth over the decade—saw a decrease in overall political power. This was the first redistricting cycle without preclearance, which had limited the ability of legislatures to draw maps that had a racially dilutive effect.

In sum, the last 10 years have been marked by a panoply of time-tested and ingenious election changes that have, or will, restrict voter access and dilute voting power. Whatever their merits, these proposals make it harder for voters to cast a ballot, for local democracy to function, and for voters to elect candidates responsive to their preferences.

Proposals to expand access to voting

As we’ve said, not all recent election changes follow this trend. In light of weakening federal protections, some states have proposed or enacted state voting rights acts. So far, California, Florida, Washington, Oregon, Virginia, New York, and Connecticut have adopted SVRAs.

SVRAs may include laws that expand causes of action for racial vote dilution, expand language protections, and adopt statewide preclearance regimes. Numerous studies have shown protections like those found in these laws can reduce racial turnout disparities, increase local elected office diversity, and improve local governments’ responsiveness to all their constituents.

To date, 24 states and the District of Columbia have implemented automatic voter registration, a process that automatically registers eligible voters when they interact with certain government agencies. Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C., have implemented same-day voter registration, which allows eligible individuals to register and cast a ballot at the same time.

Finally, federal proposals like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act would, if enacted, represent the biggest expansion of voting protections by the federal government since 1965.

The Freedom to Vote Act would create baseline national standards for voting access, modernize voter registration, stop anti-voter efforts such as voter intimidation and felony disenfranchisement, prevent election denial tactics, prohibit partisan gerrymandering, counter big money in politics, and prevent voter fraud.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would, among other things, restore federal preclearance and strengthen existing provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

What will democracy look like in the future?

In September 2023, the democracy community lost one of its greatest leaders, J. Gerald Hebert. Gerry was a titan of civil rights law generally and election law specifically. He was a part of a generation of election lawyers who came of age after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Gerry was a mentor to thousands of voting rights lawyers, whether for many years (as with Ruth) or only a few months (as with Adam), and he never forgot a face. And he was always willing to provide advice, support, and direction to anyone seeking to protect and promote voting rights. His storied career included a long stint at the U.S. Department of Justice and nearly 20 years as executive director of the Campaign Legal Center.

But if Gerry’s practice of election law was defined, at least in part, by the rise of the Voting Rights Act, ours has been defined by its demise.

This is a brief sketch of the right to vote today—the good and the bad. Central to this story is was what happened after Shelby County. But that’s not all there is to it.

Debates about the right to vote implicate our deepest-held beliefs about democracy, equality, and the rule of law. Regardless of your values, we urge you to consider them in the context of history and to always keep the future in mind: What kind of democracy do you want those you mentor or your children and grandchildren to inherit?

For our part, we believe that democracy works better when more people participate, not fewer.