Democratic Effort Boosted as Courts Block Voter ID Laws

Democratic efforts to increase voter turnout in next month’s election got a boost as courts blocked two of the strictest voter photo-identification laws in the U.S. in Wisconsin and Texas.

The Supreme Court yesterday stopped a Wisconsin law that may have helped incumbent Republican Scott Walker in his fight against Democratic challenger Mary Burke. Two other actions cut the other way in the past few weeks, when the Supreme Court blocked an Ohio early-voting period and cleared a North Carolina law that eliminates same-day registration.

The North Carolina order may hurt Democratic Senator Kay Hagan’s re-election bid against her Republican opponent, state House speaker Thom Tillis. Democrats say laws on voter identification and early voting may depress turnout among minorities and low-income Americans, who disproportionately support the party.

In Texas, a judge in Corpus Christi said the state’s alleged goal of preventing voter fraud doesn’t outweigh the discriminatory effect on the poor, blacks and Hispanics.

“The draconian voting requirements” imposed by the law “will disproportionately impact low-income Texans because they are less likely to own or need one of the seven qualified IDs to navigate their lives,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, a 2011 appointee of Democratic President Barack Obama, wrote in yesterday’s ruling.

Reduced Turnout

A September Government Accountability Office report found that Kansas and Tennessee laws requiring photo identification to vote reduced turnout in 2008 and 2012 among young people and minorities. Those demographics tend to favor Democrats.

In Wisconsin, civil rights groups said the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invited chaos by reviving that state’s law in a Sept. 12 order.

They said the state wouldn’t be able to adequately train poll workers, educate voters and get IDs into the hands of the 300,000-plus people who qualify for them. The measure is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and League of United Latin American Citizens of Wisconsin.

The high court action means “our clients and the many other voters without ID will be able to vote on Nov. 4 without unnecessary obstacles,” said Larry Dupuis, legal director of the ACLU’s Wisconsin chapter. He said the group was “profoundly relieved.”

Absentee Ballots

Thousands of absentee ballots had been mailed to voters before the Sept. 12 order with no mention of a photo ID requirement. Many of those ballots have already been submitted and those voters would have had to provide a photo ID.

The Supreme Court action came on a 6-3 vote. The majority issued a one-paragraph order that contained no explanation.

Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. They said that while the treatment of absentee ballots was “particularly troubling,” the civil rights groups hadn’t met the high standard for halting an appeals court order.

Wisconsin’s 2011 law would have applied in a general election for the first time this year. It was in force for the 2012 primary.

“I believe the voter-ID law is constitutional, and nothing in the court’s order suggests otherwise,” said the state’s Republican attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen. “Instead, the court may have been concerned that even with the extraordinary efforts of the clerks, absentee ballots that were distributed before the 7th Circuit declared the law valid might not be counted.”

Fundamental Right

Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate praised the ruling. “It’s good news that Scott Walker’s barriers to our most fundamental right to vote won’t be in place this November, but our plan remains the same,” he said.

“Over the next 25 days we will continue to educate Wisconsinites on the clear choice in this election between four more years of Scott Walker’s failed policies or a new direction with Mary Burke,” Tate said.

The Texas ruling could have consequences for the 2016 presidential campaign, as Governor Rick Perry is a potential candidate for the Republican nomination.

The Texas attorney general said yesterday in an e-mailed statement that the state would immediately appeal the ruling.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter-ID laws are constitutional so we are confident the Texas law will be upheld on appeal,” the attorney general’s office said.

2008 Ruling

The Supreme Court upheld an Indiana voter-ID law in 2008. Voting-rights advocates say the laws that have been put place more recently impose a greater burden on voters who don’t already have photo identification.

Democrats in North Carolina were dealt a defeat by the Supreme Court this week, when it let the state end same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting. The race between Hagan and Republican Tillis is among those that may decide whether Republicans take control of the Senate.

The Justice Department and civil rights groups have contended that black voters, a key constituency for Hagan’s path to victory, disproportionately use same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting.

On Sept. 29, the Supreme Court blocked an Ohio early-voting period known as “Golden Week” because people could register and cast ballots on the same day.

Texas was one of at least four states to enact voter-ID legislation later challenged in court. Pennsylvania’s law was barred by a state court judge this year.

Mail-In Ballots

Evidence in a two-week trial in September showed that Texas, the second-most-populous U.S. state, uncovered only two instances of in-person voter fraud among more than 62 million votes cast in all Texas elections during the preceding 14 years. The state’s photo-ID rules don’t address mail-in ballot fraud, which all parties agreed is a bigger problem.

Ramos ruled that voters lacking the required identity documents and the means to get them were disproportionately poor or minorities, and that the cost of acquiring these documents amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax.

Trial evidence showed that more than 600,000 registered Texas voters lost the right to vote at the polls since the law took effect. Ramos said the high number of disenfranchised voters undermined voter confidence in election results, the opposite of what the state intended with the new measures.

“We are extremely heartened by the court’s decision, which affirms our position that the Texas voter-identification law unfairly and unnecessarily restricts access to the franchise,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday in a statement.

Minority-rights groups that sued to overturn the law called yesterday’s ruling “a clear victory for all voters,” as no Texan will be prevented from voting this November for failing to have the right ID, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The case is Veasey v. Perry, 13-cv-00193, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Corpus Christi). The Supreme Court case is Frank v. Walker, 14A352.

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