Stricter ID laws and other controversial voting restrictions, passed earlier this year by several Republican-controlled legislatures, are hitting legal roadblocks that could keep many of the measures from taking effect before the November elections.
Curbs on early voting, ID requirements and last-minute efforts to rid voter lists of noncitizens have been met with vigorous opposition from the Justice Department and civil rights groups, and in some cases, the provisions have been blocked by federal or state judges.
“There has been a real push-back by the courts to these widespread efforts to restrict the vote,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which opposes the new laws. “If those seeking to suppress the vote won round one, round two seems to be going to the voters.”
Supporters of the laws argue they will ensure that elections are fair and cut down on the potential for voter fraud. Democrats contend the laws disproportionately affect voters who tend to vote for their candidates. But both parties are paying close attention to the legal fight over the laws in what is expected to be a close presidential race.
Florida, viewed by both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney as key to the election, passed several voting laws that have been challenged. Last week, a federal judge in Florida threw out a new state requirement that required groups registering voters to submit the registration cards within 48 hours or face steep fines, calling the requirement onerous. Justice Department officials have also challenged an effort by Florida’s Republican secretary of state to remove noncitizens from voter registration lists, saying it is illegal to conduct such a purge this close to an election and that the purge could be discriminatory.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) defended the review of the voter lists as a way to protect legitimate voters.
“Their vote should not be diluted by people who don’t have the right to vote,” Scott said in an interview Wednesday with WNDB radio in Daytona Beach. “We need to be reviewing our voter rolls and making sure only those individuals who have the right to vote . . . are voting.”
Among the most common changes were voter ID laws. Last year, new ID laws were introduced in 34 states and passed in Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas tightened existing voter ID laws to require photo ID. Proposed laws in five other states were vetoed by their governors, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, which has tracked the bills.
Since then, two state judges in Wisconsin have ruled its voter ID law unconstitutional, and the law will take effect only if a higher court reverses that finding. A court in Missouri threw out a ballot initiative that would have allowed voters to decide whether photo IDs should be required, calling the ballot language “misleading.”
The Justice Department has challenged ID laws in South Carolina and Texas under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which could keep those laws from taking effect before November. Speaking to a group of black politicians and church leaders last week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said his department is committed to “aggressively enforcing the Voting Rights Act” and that it opposed the ID laws in South Carolina and Texas because of their disproportionate impact on minority voters. Under the Voting Rights Act, which requires some states or counties with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval before changing their voting laws, the Justice Department can block such laws.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is pressing for voter ID laws in his state, called Justice’s stance “quite stunning” and “obviously political.”
“In Texas we have been involved in cases where votes have been cast for dead people, alive people have voted twice and foreign nationals have been allowed to vote illegally,” said Abbott, whose office has won convictions in 50 cases of voter fraud in the past eight years. “It is the state’s right to protect the integrity of the ballot box.”
The law being contested in Texas is often cited as particularly unfair because it allows gun permits as identification but not student IDs, with opponents arguing that gun owners are more likely to support Republicans while students may tend to lean toward Democrats.
Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which has filed lawsuits against the more-restrictive voting laws in several states, said she views the Texas law and others as “politicians trying to pick the voters that will vote for them. . . . There is a coordinated, systematic assault on the voting rights of the most vulnerable voters, voters of color, young people and seniors.”
Opponents say there have been few cases of voter fraud, given the millions of ballots cast and compared with the high number of poor and minority voters who would be affected.
Twenty-five percent of African American voters do not have a valid government-issued photo ID, compared with 8 percent of whites, according to a study by the Brennan Center. The report also found that 15 percent of voters earning less than $35,000 per year do not have such an ID.
But Abbott said the Supreme Court is on his side. Before the 2008 election, the high court upheld a voter ID law in Indiana. The Justice Department has said that the law in Texas, which must seek preclearance for its laws under the Voting Rights Act, would have a discriminatory impact on the state’s Hispanic population. A trial to determine whether the law can take effect is scheduled to begin July 9.
The ACLU and several other civil rights groups have also filed suit to stop the voter ID law in Pennsylvania. That trial is set for late July.