Just in Time for Early Voting, Whiplash Over Voter ID Laws

Photograph by Getty Images

Another day, another ruling about who can vote in elections that are just around the corner. Thirty-four states have some form of requirement that voters show identification to be able to cast their vote at the polls, but several of the laws are facing legal challenges by voters who say the rules are unconstitutional. In October alone, five courts issued rulings over laws in three different states. Their findings may seem incongruous but taken together, they maintain each state’s status quo, at least for now.

The most recent ruling involves Arkansas. The state legislature overrode a veto by Governor Mike Beebe in 2013 to pass a law requiring voters to provide photo ID at the polls. Four residents, represented by two nonprofit organizations, challenged the rules. This week the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously upheld a circuit court ruling that the ID requirement violates the state constitution, a ruling that immediately prevented the new requirements from taking effect. Because the challenge was to a state law, this is the final word on the matter unless the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case.

Early voting in Arkansas—without mandatory ID—will start on Monday.

Just before Arkansas came Texas, whose voter ID requirement went into effect in 2012. In early October, a federal district judge issued a long opinion (PDF) to stop the ID requirement from being enforced in the upcoming election because he intended to rule that the law was unconstitutional. Following an appeal by the state, a federal appeals court temporarily reinstated Texas’s identity requirements earlier this week. The appellate court said changing the rules so close to the election would create confusion and wouldn’t give the state enough time to retrain 25,000 polling officials at 8,000 polling sites. The judge who wrote that opinion said that the stay wasn’t about the merits of the case but was based “primarily on the extremely fast approaching election date”—strange phrasing, given that time advances at a constant rate. The appeals court will rule on the broader issue of law’s constitutionality after the election.

Early voting in Texas—with the ID requirement—starts on Oct. 20.

Adding to the confusion on the same day that the federal district judge ruled against Texas, the Supreme Court issued a temporary stay to prevent an ID law from going into effect in Wisconsin, which passed new requirements in 2011 but didn’t implement them while the rules were being challenged in court. Voters won’t need to show proof of identity when they go to the polls.

The last piece of voter ID news out this month is a study released last week by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which found both that ID laws can decrease turnout and that there’s no clear evidence that in-person voter fraud even exists. That cuts to the core question of whether the laws are fair, a matter courts will decide after the 2014 elections conclude. In the meantime, some states will demand ID and others will not.

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