The Study That Explains Why We Still Need the Voting Rights Act

Brian Fung

Ellen Katz is a law professor at the University of Michigan. When she woke up Tuesday, she probably didn't expect her work to be cited in one of the most controversial opinions handed down by the highest court in the land.

But in her dissent against the majority opinion, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited a key paper written by Katz in 2006. And it's a powerful defense of the Voting Rights Act as an instrument not only for warding off potential discrimination, but for correcting instances of discrimination that have already happened.

Here's what the Katz study found. It looked at 311 lawsuits that were filed under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act from 1982 to 2004. (Section 2 is the part where it says, broadly, don't be racist.) Of those, 37 percent were decided in the plaintiff's favor. That means over a third of the time—at least in this examination; the study estimates there may have been as many as 1,600 Section 2 cases nationwide over that period—the courts either found an actual violation of the Voting Rights Act or the suit was settled out of court somehow to the plaintiff's benefit.

The geographic distribution of these lawsuits is another reason to keep the law intact. Less than a quarter of the U.S. population lives within what the Voting Rights Act calls "covered" jurisdictions, or places that once used literacy tests and similar tools to turn away minority voters. Yet according to Katz, these areas are responsible for a disproportionate share of lawsuits alleging Section 2 violations of the Voting Rights Act.

Now that covered jurisdictions like Texas can implement voter ID laws without federal approval, it might not be a surprise if we saw an increase in the number of Section 2 lawsuits being filed in those areas. But Texas may want to tread carefully: Section 2 suits are more than 10 percentage points more likely to be decided in the plaintiffs' favor, Katz found.