New York Joins Other States in Enacting State-Level Voting Rights Act

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Panorama of the New York City skyline
Manhattan, New York City. Photo by AngMoKio via Creative Commons.

The New York State Senate and New York State Assembly have passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of New York (NYVRA), which Gov. Kathy Hochul has signed into law, making it the most comprehensive state Voting Rights Act in the country.

The NYVRA protects communities of color from attacks on their freedom to vote by preventing discriminatory voting laws from being enacted, providing new, legal tools for fighting voting discrimination in court and instructing state judges to interpret laws in a pro-voter manner wherever possible.

It also draws upon the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act (VRA), as well as state VRAs previously enacted in the states of VirginiaWashingtonOregon and California, to offer other safeguards.

The need for statehouses to pass voter protection laws is more important than ever.

When the federal VRA was still in full effect, it allowed the number of voters of color and elected officials to swell in the latter half of the 20th century by instituting a preclearance process, which required the Department of Justice to review new rules from states and localities with long histories of voting discrimination before they were implemented.

However, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted federal preclearance by invalidating the formula that the VRA used to determine which jurisdictions should be subject to preclearance in the case Shelby County v. Holder.

Many states have subsequently reverted back to discriminatory practices, like restricting opportunities for voter validation, closing polling places and purging state voter rolls. They have also used lies about the 2020 election to prohibit civic engagement organizations from distributing mail ballot applications and decrease the ability to vote early or by mail.

These anti-voter policies have hurt Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American voters’ abilities to participate in elections at disproportionately high rates.

The onus is now on states to defend the right to vote. By enacting their own versions of the VRA, states can ensure communities of color have equitable access to voting and representation.

In fact, state VRAs can go above and beyond the safeguards offered in the federal VRA. They can empower courts to impose a wider range of locally tailored remedies, prioritize community input for proposed remedies, and prevent discriminatory jurisdictions from having their preferred remedy be adopted by default.

They can also require voters and governments to work collaboratively to fix discriminatory election systems before resorting to expensive lawsuits. State VRAs may provide the best vehicle for ensuring the freedom to vote for communities of color.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has supported efforts to implement state VRAs and guarantee that the protections in these laws are applied so that voters can have their voices heard.

CLC has signed onto multiple letters endorsing the NYVRA and provided testimony on this bill, as well as submitting a letter in support of an amendment to the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA) that would enable jurisdictions to use a low-cost preclearance process to avoid expensive lawsuits.

CLC also brought the first ever case that successfully used WVRA protections to secure a fair election system for Latino voters in Yakima County, Washington.

In a historic settlement, the county agreed to replace its discriminatory at-large election system with a system where county commissioners are elected in fair single-member districts, providing Latino community members equal opportunity to elect candidates responsive to their needs and priorities.

Whatever our race, background or zip code, we all deserve to have an equal say in the key decisions that will impact our future. State VRAs can help communities of color make their voices heard in government and ensure that states have equitable, representative election systems.  

Aseem Mulji is a Legal Fellow, Redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center.
Valencia is an Equal Justice Works fellow at CLC.
Why Should Every State Pass Its Own Voting Rights Act?