Safeguarding Voting Rights: Learn More at the PBI Annual Conference

In 2021, both Texas and Georgia enacted laws that restricted voting access for marginalized communities, including people with disabilities, the Latino community, and people of color. Statistics featured in this 2023 PBEye blog highlight the many barriers to voting for marginalized communities, and the new laws heightened concerns about altering elections and suppressing voter turnout.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia tried to make voting easier by allowing voters to drop their ballots off in a secure drop box or vote via mail. After the 2020 presidential election, Georgia’s legislature passed a law limiting many of the options that voters used in 2020. SB 202, which was signed by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp in 2021, requires voters who wish to cast an absentee ballot to provide their driver’s license number or other forms of voter ID, request the ballot at least 11 days before the election, use the updated ballot form, and send in the ballot no sooner than 30 days before Election Day. The law also only allows for one drop box per 100,000 registered voters, only counts votes cast by a voter in the wrong precinct if it was cast after 5 pm, and prohibits mobile voting units, unless there is a declared disaster. Brian Dimmick, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program said, “There are hundreds of thousands of voters with disabilities in Georgia, and many of them face challenges in voting in person and so rely on absentee voting…SB 202 puts new barriers in the way of voters with disabilities trying to exercise their fundamental rights.”

Texas instated similar laws that raised concerns about voter suppression. Governor Greg Abbot signed SB 1 in 2021. This bill further tightened state election laws and constraints local controls of elections by limiting counties’ ability to expand voting options. Additional constraints include increasing early voter hours in mostly Republican counties, while contrastingly targeting diverse Democratic Harris County by banning overnight early voting hours and drive-through voting, which were two methods popular for voters of color. Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, said, “SB 1 is an arduous law designed to limit Tejanos’ ability to exercise their full citizenship…Not only are we filing suit to protect the right to vote for all people of color, and the additional 250,000 young Latino Tejanos who will reach voting age in 2022, but to protect every Texan’s right to vote.” 

Unsurprisingly, these laws faced backlash from many groups and individuals who sought to protect the right to vote, including The Arc and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. These organizations and others, along with individual impacted poll workers and law firms, providing pro bono legal assistance, filed suit to challenge these laws in Texas and in Georgia. As of December 2023, federal judges in Georgia and Texas have ruled against some key provisions of the two controversial election laws that followed the 2020 election. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez in the Western District of Texas struck down a provision of Texas’ law requiring that mail voters provide the same identification number they used when they registered to vote. On a motion for preliminary injunction of the Georgia law, U.S. District Judge J.P. Boulee in the Northern District of Georgia temporarily prohibited officials from enforcing penalties against people who provide food and water to voters waiting in line if they are more than 150 feet from the building where voting is taking place. The judge also blocked a part of the law that requires voters to provide their birthdate on absentee ballot envelopes. The litigation is ongoing in both jurisdictions.

Ready to learn more? The Pro Bono Institute (PBI) 2024 Annual Conference will present a session on Safeguarding the Right to Vote. Hear from the attorneys involved in both the Georgia and Texas litigation on how public interest organizations and pro bono attorneys have partnered to challenge voter suppression laws, and how pro bono providers can expand their pro bono practice and partnerships to help safeguard the right to vote.