After Dobbs, Voting Rights are Essential to Reproductive Rights and Justice

Josia Klein

November 22, 2022 | Abortion, Reproductive Rights

The 2022 midterm election brought significant wins for abortion rights in the states where it was on the ballot. This election made it clear: our ability to protect and expand reproductive healthcare depends on our ability to vote.

In Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the Supreme Court majority attempted to downplay their extremist opinion overturning Roe v. Wade by pointing to the electoral process, shrugging their shoulders and claiming they are merely returning the issue of abortion to voters. Justice Alito authored the opinion, writing that there are no constitutional protections for abortion access and that women who disagree "are not without electoral or political power." But the truth is that our power has been deliberately and systematically undermined by the same actors who have long sought to overturn Roe, including the Supreme Court.

Abortion rights and voting rights are inextricably linked. It's disingenuous for the Court to claim it is simply giving the issue of abortion "to the people and their elected representatives" when the very same Court has spent the last decade eviscerating voting rights and the structure of our democracy. With reproductive rights on the line on a state-by-state basis, this undercutting of a fair electoral process obstructs democracy and harms the same individuals who are most affected by state anti-abortion laws.

Voting restrictions imperil our ability to participate in democracy

Less than ten years ago, the Supreme Court gutted a central part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder, opening the door for states to enact dozens of voting restrictions.

And since the 2020 election, Republican state legislatures have capitalized on false claims of a stolen election to pass even more restrictions. Despite extensive research that voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States, from January 2021 to early May 2022, 18 states passed 34 restrictive voting laws making it harder for eligible Americans to register, remain on voting rolls, or vote.

These restrictions make it disproportionately challenging for people of color to participate in democracy. For example, strict voter ID laws – enacted despite voter impersonation being exceedingly rare – have a greater effect on voters of color, as well as people who are low-income, the elderly, and people with disabilities, who more frequently have difficulty obtaining required ID cards. Voters of color also face longer wait times on Election Day due to the elimination of alternatives like voting by mail and expanded early voting, as well as closures of polling places.

And the Supreme Court continues to mutilate the Voting Rights Act. Just last year, the Court narrowed one of the sole remaining ways to challenge a discriminatory voting restriction. Under the Court's new standard, many laws that were previously struck down due to discriminatory impact on nonwhite voters are now likely to survive challenges. Such decisions make clear that the Court's reassurance in Dobbs to women, and especially to women of color, that they can vote to express their dissent is nothing but a false promise.

Partisan gerrymandering dilutes the strength of our voting power

Layered on top of voting restrictions are partisan gerrymanders that further dilute citizens' voting power. The Supreme Court greenlit partisan gerrymandering in 2019, holding in Rucho v. Common Cause that political parties can strategically draw lines for congressional districts to isolate and limit the power of the opposing party while maximizing their own.

Partisan gerrymanders result in more extreme laws across the board, including those that restrict access to abortion and reproductive health care. They widen the gap between public opinion and state laws, while also making it more difficult for voters to replace politicians enacting such radical measures. And partisan gerrymandering makes it less likely that people of color can elect their preferred candidates — an enormous inequity given that the Supreme Court's offered solution to confiscating abortion access at the national level is for citizens to vote at the state level.

We must center reproductive rights in the upcoming election

It is no coincidence that the same communities experiencing disproportionate barriers to abortion access – through state bans, insurance coverage restrictions, mandatory waiting periods, and other restrictive policies – are also facing voter disenfranchisement. A recent nonpartisan ranking of the difficulty of voting in each state, based on how much time and resources residents must invest in order to vote, reveals that the states with the greatest restrictions on abortion access are the same states making it most difficult for their citizens to exercise their electoral power.

We know the Dobbs decision is at odds with public opinion, given that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of gender and race, believe women should have legal access to abortion. But without access to meaningful voting rights and accurate representation by elected officials, the gap between public opinion on abortion and state and federal policies will continue to grow.

Despite all of these challenges, people are heeding the call to action and stepping up to protect our rights. Women of color especially are leading actions across the country, organizing to defeat anti-abortion ballot measures and to elect pro-choice representatives. And they are pushing back at attempts to minimize their participation in civic life, ensuring their voices are heard and that lawmakers will be accountable on reproductive health issues directly affecting them.

In Kansas, for example, voters overwhelmingly rejected the ballot initiative opening the door to significant abortion restrictions. Of newly registered voters in the state, 70% were women. More women, people of color, and young people have registered to vote since Dobbs – especially in the states where abortion access is either most at risk or was immediately affected by the decision.

Victories like this give us reason to be hopeful, even as we are clear-eyed about the headwinds we face. Now is the time for action: make a voting plan and encourage your friends and family to do the same.

As threats to democracy grow – including in the form of radical state and federal lawmakers openly coordinating with violent extremists to suppress and intimidate those with whom they disagree – there has never been a more urgent need to understand the connection between abortion rights and voting rights, and to strengthen protections for them together.

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