With Voting Rights Act Out, States Push Voter ID Laws

Voters line up at the Engine 26 Ladder 9 firehouse to vote in the Presidential elections in New Orleans, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Voters line up at the Engine 26 Ladder 9 firehouse to vote in the Presidential elections in New Orleans, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

June 26, 2013

Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the law requiring nine states to submit voting law changes to the federal government for pre-clearance, five* are already moving ahead with voter ID laws, some of which had already been rejected as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act.

The spate of new and potentially discriminatory laws is exactly why proponents of the Voting Rights Act argued that Section 4, the pre-clearance requirement, should remain in place.

Before 1965, when the law was first passed, state and local governments came up with ever-inventive ways to keep blacks from voting, forcing the federal government to launch countless legal battles. When Texas was prohibited from holding all-white primaries in 1927, for example, it passed a new law to allow the party leadership to decide who could vote. They chose an all-white primary.

“Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her fierce dissent of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place. This Court repeatedly encountered the remarkable ‘variety and persistence’ of laws disenfranchising minority citizens,” she continued.

Since last year, 41 states have introduced some form of restrictive voting legislation, and of those 18 passed laws. Among the most popular are those that require voters to show a photo ID in order to vote, which proponents say helps to counter fraud — a phenomenon that almost never happens (pdf), analysts say.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court argued that the federal government can always challenge any discriminatory laws in court.

Those cases may begin sooner than anticipated as states cast off the VRA requirements. In one of the strongest statements welcoming the decision, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said the law requiring federal approval of voting changes “humiliates Arizona by making it say ‘Mother may I’ to the federal government every time it wants to change some remarkably minor laws.” (The state’s own law requiring voters to submit proof of citizenship was struck down 7-2 by the Supreme Court last week.)

Here’s a rundown of the states that are already moving ahead with legislation:

It only took a few hours for TEXAS to move forward on its voter ID law, considered the strictest in the nation. The law requires Texans to prove their citizenship and their residency in the state. To qualify, you’d need to present forms of ID that are expensive and difficult to obtain for some low-income Americans. It requires a passport — the cheapest of which is $55 — or a copy of your birth certificate, which not all Americans, particularly older ones, have.

A court blocked the law in 2012 because it discriminated against Latino and black voters.

On Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Greg Abbott announced in a statement that the law would take effect “immediately.”

Abbott also is planning to put in place redistricting maps legislators drew up in 2011 that “show[ed] a deliberate, race-conscious method to manipulate not simply the Democratic vote but, more specifically, the Hispanic vote,” according to a court ruling that blocked the maps.

The Justice Department blocked a similar voter ID law passed by SOUTH CAROLINA in 2011, and a federal court prevented its implementation in 2012. The courts said South Carolina would need an exemption for those who can’t obtain an ID card to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

State Attorney General Alan Wilson, calling the VRA an “extraordinary intrusion” on its sovereignty, said South Carolina can now move forward with “reasonable election reforms” including its voter ID law.

ALABAMA passed a voter ID law in 2011, and never sought preclearance from the Justice Department to determine whether it might be discriminatory. It plans to implement it in 2014.

In VIRGINIA, a voter ID bill was signed into law in March this year, and set to take effect in 2014. Since it doesn’t need preclearance now, it’s likely to take effect as planned.

MISSISSIPPI also seems poised to move ahead with a voter ID law it passed in 2012, which had been awaiting preclearance from the federal government. The law could require voters to start showing a photo ID by next year.

The state, long known for some of the more egregious civil-rights abuses, had signed on to an amicus brief in support of the Voting Rights Act filed with the Supreme Court. Mississippi joined with North Carolina, New York and California to argue that the law improved transparency and blocked discriminatory practices before they began. (Read the full brief here (pdf).)

“It serves a powerful deterrent function that case-by-case litigation would not provide,” Mississippi and the others argued at the time.

*This story originally said that six states that had been under pre-clearance were moving ahead with voter ID laws, including Arkansas. Arkansas wasn’t covered under Section 5. It did, however, pass a new voter ID law on Monday.  

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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