How a 2013 US Supreme Court ruling enabled states to enact election laws without federal approval

Since 2019, legislators and election officials in Florida have revised, passed and enforced restrictive voting laws that make it harder for poor people, former felons and people of color – who traditionally favor Democrats in elections – to vote.

At the same time, they appear to have taken exceptional measures that have made it easier for voters in Republican areas of the state to cast their ballots, especially after a natural disaster.

The pattern of favoring GOP voters and discriminating against people of color, especially against Blacks, has been so obvious that, in a brief filed in federal court on Aug. 17, 2022, federal prosecutors argued that Republicans lawmakers targeted Black voters when they enacted the new election law in Florida, a charge denied by lawyers defending the state.

Yet less than a week after the filing, instead of addressing widespread concerns over the restriction of voting rights, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference to show how his state is taking “voter fraud” seriously.

Despite the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud, DeSantis told the assembled media that the state’s new Office of Election Crimes and Security was in the process of arresting 20 Florida residents for allegedly committing voting fraud.

Based on media reports, the majority of those pursued by authorities were Black voters.

Although a judge dismissed charges filed against one man, we believe these arrests are a bellwether of more efforts Americans will likely see to intimidate voters under the guise of election security.

The question, then, is how are states allowed to enact election laws that appear race neutral – but have a disproportionate impact on voters who have been historically disenfranchised?

Impact of Shelby v. Holder

We are scholars of the American civil rights movement and the role of geography and voter intimidation in the long struggle for Black voting rights.

The actions in Florida are part of a national trend that saw dozens of states across the country overhaul their election laws after former President Donald Trump’s persistent and false claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.