Laws Protecting Americans' Right to Vote

Protestors in New Orleans calling for protection of voting rights for returning Katrina victims
New Orleans Protest Calls for Protection of Voting Rights of Returning Katrina Victims. Sean Gardner / Getty Images

No American who is qualified to vote should ever be denied the right and opportunity to do so. That seems so simple. So basic. How can "government by the people" work if certain groups of "the people" are not allowed to vote?

Unfortunately, in our nation's history, some people have been, either intentionally or unintentionally, denied their right to vote. Today, four federal laws, enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice, work in concert to ensure that all Americans are allowed to register to vote and enjoy an equal opportunity to cast a ballot on Election Day.

Voting Rights Act: Preventing Racial Discrimination in Voting

For many years, some states enforced laws clearly intended to prevent minority citizens from voting. Laws requiring voters to pass reading or "intelligence" tests or to pay a poll tax denied the right to vote—the most basic right in our form of democracy—to thousands of citizens until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act protects every American against racial discrimination in voting. It also ensures the right to vote for people for whom English is a second language. The Voting Rights Act applies to elections for any political office or ballot issue held anywhere in the nation. Federal courts have used the Voting Rights Act to end practices amounting to racial discrimination in the way some states elected their legislative bodies and chose their election judges and other polling place officials. Unfortunately, however, the Voting Rights Act is not bulletproof and has faced court challenges.

Voter Photo ID Laws

As of 2020, 35 states have laws in effect either requesting or requiring voters to show some form of photo identification in order to vote and the remaining 14 employ other methods of identifying voters such as signatures or verbal identification. Some experts see voter identification laws as violations of the Voting Rights Act and others see them as necessary preventative measures against fraud.

More states moved to adopt photo ID voting laws in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act did not allow the U.S. Department of Justice to automatically apply federal oversight of new election laws in states with histories of racial discrimination.

While supporters of photo voter ID laws argue that they help prevent voter fraud, critics like the American Civil Liberties Union cite studies showing that up to 11% of Americans lack an acceptable form of photo ID.

Persons most likely to not have acceptable photo ID include minorities, elderly and disabled persons, and financially disadvantaged persons.

In strict photo ID law states, voters without an accepted form photo ID—a driver’s license, state ID, passport, etc.—are not allowed to cast a valid ballot. Instead, they are allowed to fill out “provisional” ballots, which remain uncounted until they are able to produce an accepted ID. If the voter does not produce an accepted ID within a short period of time after the election, their ballot is never counted.

Some state photo ID laws are strict and others are non-strict. In non-strict photo ID law states, voters without an accepted form photo ID are allowed to use alternative types of validation, such as signing an affidavit swearing to their identification or having a poll worker or election official vouch for them.

In August 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that a Texas strict voter ID law discriminated against Black and Hispanic voters and thus violated the Voting Rights Act. The law required voters to produce a Texas driver’s license; U.S. passport; citizenship certificate; military ID card; concealed-handgun permit; or an election identification certificate issued by the State Department of Public Safety.

While the Voting Rights Act still prohibits states from enacting laws intended to disenfranchise minority voters, whether photo ID laws do so or not remains a topic of discussion in court.


Gerrymandering is the process of employing “apportionment” to improperly redraw the boundaries of state and local election districts in a way that tends to predetermine the results of elections by diluting the voting power of certain groups of people.

For example, gerrymandering has been used in the past to “break up” election districts populated by mainly Black voters, thus lessening the chances of Black candidates being elected to local and state offices.

Unlike photo ID laws, gerrymandering almost always violates the Voting Rights Act because it typically targets minority voters.

Help America Vote Act: Equal Access to the Polls for Disabled Voters

Approximately one in four American adults have a disability. Failing to provide disabled persons easy and equal access to polling places is against the law.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires the states to ensure that voting systems—including voting machines and ballots—and polling places are accessible to people with disabilities. As of Jan. 1, 2006, every voting precinct in the nation is required to have at least one voting machine available and accessible to persons with disabilities. Providing persons with disabilities the same opportunity for full participation in voting includes making provisions for the privacy, independence, and assistance afforded to other voters. To help in evaluating a precinct's compliance with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the Justice Department provides a handy checklist for polling places.

National Voter Registration Act: Voter Registration Made Easy

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also called the "Motor Voter" law, requires all states to offer voter registration and assistance at all offices where people apply for driver's licenses, public benefits, or other government services. The law also prohibits states from removing voters from the registration rolls simply because they have not voted. States are also required to ensure the timeliness of their voter registration rolls by regularly removing voters who have died or moved from the database.

Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act: Voting Accessibility for Active-Duty Soldiers

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act of 1986 requires the states to ensure that all members of the U.S. armed forces stationed away from home and all citizens living overseas can register to vote absentee in federal elections.

Moore vs. Harper

On July 17, 2022, after issuing controversial decisions on abortion and gun control, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an election-law case that could over the long run be consequential for voting rights. In the case of Moore vs. Harper, the North Carolina General Assembly is challenging the North Carolina Supreme Court’s invalidation of congressional district lines drawn by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. The state Supreme Court ruled that the legislature had violated the state constitution’s prohibitions on excessive political partisanship, or “gerrymandering” in district-line-drawing. The plaintiffs argue that the state Supreme Court didn’t have the authority to strike down these maps, and rest their claim on legal arguments that would fundamentally alter how future congressional and presidential elections are conducted.

Before Moore vs. Harper, state court rulings on the meaning of state constitutions had rarely been the stuff of U.S. Supreme Court cases. Far more commonly, state law, including the interpretation of state constitutions, is left to the state courts.

That’s why Moore vs. Harper could be so disruptive. In Moore vs. Harper, the Republican legislators advance a radical theory known as the “independent state legislatures” (ISL) doctrine. If endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court, this doctrine could have profound and wide-ranging implications for all future federal elections, including the 2024 presidential contest. 

Under the strongest interpretation of the ISL doctrine, all state constitutional provisions limiting state lawmakers’ ability to affect the outcomes of federal elections would cease to function. State courts would lose their power to strike down anti-democratic state laws, such as a gerrymander that violate the state constitution or laws that toss out ballots for arbitrary reasons. In addition, state governors would lose their constitutional power to veto new state election laws, including those like poll taxes and Grandfather clauses that limit or deny the right to vote.

As Justice Neil Gorsuch described the ISL approach in a 2020 concurring opinion in a case concerning the deadline for casting mail-in ballots in Wisconsin, “the Constitution provides that state legislatures—not federal judges, not state judges, not state governors, not other state officials—bear primary responsibility for setting election rules.”

Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states that the “Times, Places and Manners” of holding congressional elections “shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” And Article II says that “Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” a slate of presidential electors.

ISL suggests that the U.S. Constitution’s specific mention of state “legislatures” means that no other element of state government—neither the governor, nor the state judiciary, nor even the people, acting via direct democracy—can nullify or otherwise refuse to obey acts of the state legislature, even when those acts violate the state constitution.

State constitutions, as enforced by the state courts, are vital sources of fundamental rights, including voting rights. When a state is denied the ability to enforce its own constitution by its own legislative institutions, the 10th Amendment, which says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”—is fundamentally altered, and the rights of states curtailed.

View Article Sources
  1. "Voter Identification Requirements | Voter ID Laws." National Conference of State Legislatures, 25 Aug. 2020.

  2. "About Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act." The United States Department of Justice, 11 Sep. 2020.

  3. "Citizens Without Proof: A Survey of Americans' Possession of Documentary Proof of Citizenship and Photo Identification." Voting Rights and Elections Series. Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, Nov. 2006.

  4. "Veasey v. Perry Court of Appeals Decision." The United States Department of Justice, 5 Aug. 2015.

  5. Cox, Adam B., and Richard T. Holden. "Reconsidering Racial and Partisan Gerrymandering." The University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 78, no. 2, 2001.

  6. "Disability Impacts All of Us." Disability and Health Promotion. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  7. "ADA Checklist for Polling Places." U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, June 2016.

  8. "About the National Voter Registration Act." The United States Department of Justice, 21 May 2019.

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Longley, Robert. "Laws Protecting Americans' Right to Vote." ThoughtCo, Jul. 28, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, July 28). Laws Protecting Americans' Right to Vote. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Laws Protecting Americans' Right to Vote." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).