What do recent court decisions on identification requirements mean for voters?

Voting rights supporters in North Carolina, North Dakota and Texas have triumphed this summer over what they consider discriminatory voter-identification laws. Since 2008, ten state legislatures have tightened such requirements or otherwise restricted how votes may be cast. William Brangham discusses the recent rulings with Rick Hasen, professor of law at University of California, Irvine.

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    A series of federal court decisions in the last few weeks could change the rules about how many Americans will be casting votes this November.

    William Brangham has the latest on these rulings.


    Voting rights supporters have won a series of remarkable victories in the last few weeks, what they contend is a much-needed pushback against what they say are discriminatory voter-I.D. laws.

    Since 2008, 10 states, almost all governed by Republican legislatures, have passed laws tightening the requirements for the kinds of I.D. you need in order to vote, or made other changes to when and how votes get cast.

    But several federal courts have now ruled that some of those laws are discriminatory. On Monday, a federal judge blocked North Dakota's voter I.D. law, saying it impinged on the rights of Native Americans.

    The judge wrote — quote — "No eligible voter, regardless of their station in life, should be denied the opportunity to vote."

    Last Friday, a federal court ruled that North Carolina's new voting laws had intentionally been designed to discriminate against minorities, saying — quote — "These new provisions target African-Americans with almost surgical precision."

    And then, in July, another court ruled that Texas' voter-I.D. laws also hurt minority voters, and they ordered the laws be changed before November, saying — quote — "It would be untenable to permit a law with a discriminatory effect to remain in operation for that election."

    Joining me now to wade through these changes is U.C. Irvine law Professor Richard Hasen. He writes what's called The Election Law Blog.

    So, Professor, help me understand this. The courts have been saying, not so fast, states.

    Generally speaking, what have the states been doing with their voting laws in recent years?

    RICK HASEN, University of California, Irvine: Well, most of these, but not all of these challenges involve new strict voter identification laws.

    Every state has some way of identifying voters, but if you narrow the number of identifications that are acceptable, and a lot of people don't have those I.D.s, you run the risk of disenfranchising people who are otherwise eligible to vote.

    And so in cases out of Wisconsin, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Texas, just in the last few weeks, we have seen those laws struck down, in the case of North Carolina, or, in the case of these other states, softened so that people who lack one of these narrow forms of I.D. can find a work-around, a different way to be able to prove their identity and cast a ballot.


    We touched a little bit at this on the introduction, but what is it that the courts have been saying that these laws do? What do they find so objectionable about them?


    Well, the rulings are not all the same.

    In North Carolina, as you mentioned, the court thought that the law was intentionally discriminatory against African-Americans, that is not necessarily that the state of North Carolina acted with racial hatred or racial animus, but they knew that this law was going to make it harder for African-Americans to vote, and they did that anyway, and in part doing it knowing that African-Americans tend to vote for Democrats.

    And this was a Republican legislature, as it was in all of the states that you have mentioned, passing the new restrictive laws in order to gain some political advantage.


    Supporters of these laws have been saying all along that these were made to prevent voter fraud. I know, in the North Carolina case, the judges ruled that there was really no evidence that that's happening.

    Is there evidence that voter fraud is happening or is a problem in other states?


    Well, you know, it depends on the kind of voter fraud that you're talking about.

    The term is thrown around loosely, but the kind of voter fraud that a voter identification law would target would be impersonation fraud. I go into the polls pretending to be someone else.

    This turns out to be very, very rare. It's not the way that, when elections are manipulated, that it happens. The kind of fraud that we tend to see, which is still rare, falls into one of two categories. Either it's election officials doing something to mess with the vote-counting, or it's something to do with absentee ballots, such as the sale of absentee ballots. Somebody buys absentee ballots and then votes them how they want.

    These kind of activities are not at all addressed by voter I.D. laws, which really only provide identification in the polling place to make sure that someone who shows up is who he or she says he is.


    But on this issue of voter fraud, you have probably been hearing Donald Trump has been making noises recently that he believes this November election could very well be stolen because of fraud. He says if people don't have an I.D., what's to stop them from going in and voting 10 times? What's the answer?


    Well, that sounds like someone — yes, that sounds like someone who has never been to a polling place, because you just can't go in and ask for a ballot, and they will just trust you.

    There is a voter roll. There is a list. Every state identifies you somehow. It might be that you give your signature. And if it's that, then your signature is on the line. You're already voted. You can't vote 10 times.

    I would say it was a silly thing to say, except I think it's really dangerous to call the integrity of our elections into question, because our very democracy depends upon those who are on the losing side of the election having faith that the votes were fairly and accurately counted.


    Is there a potential that these recent changes could cause confusion on Election Day?


    There is certainly the potential for confusion.

    Just now today, in Texas, the state of Texas and the plaintiffs agreed to a set of rules for how people who lack one of the narrow forms of I.D. would be able to vote, by providing, for example, a utility bill or a different kind of identification.

    In Wisconsin, they're still litigating over what the rules are going to be. And in North Carolina, North Carolina indicated today they may go as far as the Supreme Court to try to get their law, which had been reversed, put back on the books in time for November.

    But I do think it's a real danger that, as we get closer to the election, voters may not know, for example, in Texas, that if they lack one of those narrow forms of I.D., they will still be eligible to vote if they're otherwise eligible to cast a ballot.


    All right, Rick Hasen from the U.C. Irvine, thank you very much for being here.


    Thank you.

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