Voting Rights Institute (VRI)


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The Voting Rights Institute is a legal advocacy and training organization that formed in 2014 as a project of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and the Campaign Legal Center, two left-of-center legal organizations. The Georgetown University Law Center operates VRI. 1

The American Constitution Society and the Campaign Legal Center founded VRI in response to the United States Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required certain state and local governments to obtain approval from the federal government before changing election laws. 2 The organization has received funding from many of the most notable left-of-center grantmaking organizations in the United States, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, and the Wallace Global Fund. 3


VRI began operation in 2014 as a joint project of the American Constitution Society, the Campaign Legal Center, and the Georgetown University Law Center. VRI was founded in direct opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder and began holding trainings shortly after the decision to train left-of-center voting rights attorneys, election experts, and community activists. At the formal VRI launch in October of 2015, former Texas state Senator Wendy Davis (D) delivered keynote remarks along with the dean of Georgetown Law School William M. Treanor, American Constitution Society president Caroline Fredrickson, and Gerry Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. Despite the many notable left-of-center founders and funders of VRI, Gerry Herbert remarked that Georgetown Law was selected to host the institute in order to provide “nonpartisan analysis.” 4

Shelby County v. Holder

The Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder held that Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Until 2013, Section 5 forced states and localities with low turnout in the 1964 presidential election to receive clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice to change their election laws. The Supreme Court ruled that the regulation was also outdated, given that it depended on turnout data from 1964 to determine the localities to which the law applied. 5

Left-of-center figures and organizations vilified the decision as an attack on voting rights, holding that the preclearance process was essential to protecting the Voting Rights Act. Left-of-center organizations have continually pushed Democrats in Congress to create a new formula through legislation that would allow for federal control over election reform in certain states. 6

Supporters of the Shelby decision have maintained that the preclearance process and the Voting Rights Act were successful in promoting voting rights across the United States and reforming restrictive election laws in the states originally targeted by Section 5. Proponents of eliminating the requirement maintained that the provision, while allowed by the Supreme Court as an emergency provision in 1966, was outdated and tied the hands of nine states based on their 1964 voter turnout until the 2013 decision. 7


VRI primarily works to train law students, attorneys, and activists to use the remaining provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to bring lawsuits against state and local governments in order to enact left-leaning election reforms, especially through Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S Constitution. 8


  1. “Voting Rights Institute Receives Prestigious MacArthur Grant.” Pro Bono Net. March 23, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2020.
  2. “Shelby County v. Holder.” Oyez. Accessed September 30, 2020.
  3. Collantes, Francisco. “Law Center Launches Voting Rights Institute.” The Georgetown Hoya. October 2, 2015. Accessed September 30, 2020.
  4. “Georgetown Law Becomes Permanent Home of Voting Rights Institute, Partnering with Campaign Legal Center & American Constitution Society.” Campaign Legal Center. October 2, 2015.
  5. “Shelby County v. Holder.” Oyez. Accessed September 30, 2020.
  6. Lockhart, PR. “How Shelby County v. Holder upended voting rights in America.” Vox. June 25, 2019.  Accessed September 30, 2020.
  7. Consovoy, William and McCarthy, Thomas. “Shelby County v. Holder: The Restoration of Constitutional Order.” Cato Institute. 2013. Accessed September 30, 2020.
  8. Collantes, Francisco. “Law Center Launches Voting Rights Institute.” The Georgetown Hoya. October 2, 2015. Accessed September 30, 2020.
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