New Voter ID Laws Hit Setbacks

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station open for early voting in the Fulton County Government Center ahead of Georgia's upcoming May 20 primary elections, Tuesday, May 6, 2014, in Atlanta. Early voting in Georgia began April 28 and runs through May 16. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station open for early voting in the Fulton County Government Center ahead of Georgia's upcoming May 20 primary elections, Tuesday, May 6, 2014, in Atlanta. Early voting in Georgia began April 28 and runs through May 16. (AP Photo/David Goldman) (AP Photo/David Goldman)

May 12, 2014

Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court’s landmark Shelby v. Holder decision to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, several states announced plans to move forward with new legislation, including requiring voter IDs, reducing the number of early voting days, and eliminating same-day registration.

Now, almost a year later, some of those laws have been struck down, and others are tied up in legislation. A few states have also advanced laws to make it easier to vote.

“This isn’t all going in one direction anymore,” said Dale Ho, head of the ACLU’s voting rights project. “I can’t say it’s going back in 180 degrees in the other direction. It just means the tide has been stemmed a little bit.”

Voter ID Laws Lose in Court 

Five states announced plans to move ahead with voter ID laws in the wake of the Shelby decision. Nearly a year later, these laws have taken a hit in the courts.

Voter ID laws in Pennsylvania and Arkansas were struck down this year after courts ruled they presented too great a barrier to voters, and were therefore unconstitutional.

In Wisconsin, a judge ruled in late April that the state’s voter ID law, Act 23, discriminated against low-income voters, many of whom are black. It was a landmark ruling because the judge found it to be discriminatory under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which could help to set a precedent for future voter ID cases.

The Wisconsin court rejected the state’s argument that the law would prevent voter impersonation fraud. It noted that while officials hadn’t produced any evidence of such fraud in the state, several Wisconsin voters had shown that it would be difficult if not impossible for them to obtain the proper identification under the new law. “It is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes,” the court found.

In North Carolina, the Justice Department and civil rights groups have sued over a comprehensive voting law that would require voter ID and eliminates same-day registration and cuts early voting, among other changes. On Friday, a judge in North Carolina heard arguments about whether legislators must disclose their communications about the comprehensive law enacted just a month after Shelby.

Texas is facing a challenge by the Justice Department and voter rights groups that argue that its voter ID law discriminates against minorities. Greg Abbott, the state attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate, has said that claim is “outrageous” and amounts to “gutter politics,” adding that the law is aimed at preventing fraud. The case goes to court in September.

States Making It Easier

Meanwhile, a few states have quietly advanced measures making it easier to register to vote. Hawaii passed same-day registration and Minnesota now allows voters to register online.

A few red states have also followed suit: Nebraska passed a law allowing same-day registration during early voting, and Utah allowed each county to choose to allow same-day registration. Montana will allow voters to decide in November in a referendum whether to continue same-day registration.

What’s Next

Despite the recent court rulings, there’s still several new voting laws on the books, some of which take effect for the first time in 2014, Myrna Perez, head of the Brennan Center’s voting rights and elections project, points out. That includes voter ID laws in Mississippi, Virginia and North Dakota.

A few states, including North Carolina and Wisconsin, are also changing policies on another election issue: early voting.

Currently available in 33 states, early voting typically allows the polls to open during evening and weekend hours in the weeks before an election to accommodate those who can’t afford to take time off from work on a weekday to vote. Anyone can take advantage of the time, but it’s more commonly used by lower-income voters, and African-Americans, many of whom often head to the polls with church groups on Sundays, according to voting-rights advocates.

In January 2014, the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended expanding early voting to increase access to the polls. But according to the ACLU’s Dale Ho, early voting is “the major issue that Republicans outside of the commission have dissented on.”

The Republican National Lawyers Association, which describes itself as “the leading Republican group on matters of election law and
administration,” embraced most of the presidential commission’s other suggestions, but rejected early voting, saying it doesn’t reduce lines at the polls and would “produce more burdens” on local election officials.

Earlier this year, Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, vetoed part of a bill that reduced early-voting hours, but approved the section banning early voting on weekends.

Ohio recently eliminated the first week of early voting, during which people could register and cast ballots at the same time, along with all Sundays and evening hours, and the Monday before election day.

The ACLU filed a challenge against the changes last week, arguing that Ohio had unnecessarily made it more difficult for low-income voters, many of whom are also black, to cast their ballots. In a statement, a spokesman for Republican John Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state slammed the lawsuit, pointing out that Ohio has more early voting opportunities than some neighboring states.

“It’s ironic that Secretary Husted is being sued for treating all voters equally and for supporting a bipartisan voting schedule that gives Ohioans an entire month to cast ballots,” it said in part. “The ACLU is targeting the wrong state because by every objective measure Ohio has expansive opportunities to vote.”

The ACLU lawsuit is seeking an injunction to block the changes from being implemented ahead of the 2014 midterms, in addition to overturning them entirely.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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