Less than four weeks away from a crucial election that may see control of the Senate shift to the GOP, there’s a bitter fight underway. Activists are battling a wave of restrictive new voting laws passed over the past few years by Republican-controlled legislatures. In recent weeks, the courts have handed down a flurry of decisions, changing or upholding the new rules just ahead of November’s vote.
As The New York Times reported this week, these decisions, “issued by judges with an increasingly partisan edge, are sowing confusion… with the potential to affect outcomes in some states.” Nina Turner, the Democratic candidate for Ohio secretary of state, told The Times, “The new voter suppression in the 21st century is all this voter confusion.”
To help you stay on top of what’s happening, we’ve rounded up some of the latest developments:
Voter ID Laws Blocked, Struck Down
At The Huffington Post, Ryan Reilly reports, “A federal judge in Texas struck down the state’s voter ID law on Thursday, calling it a ‘poll tax’ intended to discriminate against Hispanic and African-American citizens that creates ‘an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote.'”
UPDATE: On October 14, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, allowing the state to enforce the law. Lawrence Hurley reports for Reuters that a coalition of civil rights lawyers submitted a petition to the Supreme Court the following day, asking it to reinstate the lower court’s ruling pending an appeal. If the Supreme Court does not intervene, Texas’ voter ID law will be in effect on November 4.
Update II: On October 18, the Supreme Court upheld the Fifth Circuit Court’s decision. See Ari Berman’s report, “The Supreme Court Eviscerates the Voting Rights Act in Texas Voter-ID Decision.”
In addition to the Texas ruling, on Thursday, “a divided US Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law… issuing a terse yet dramatic one-page ruling less than four weeks before the Nov. 4 election,” according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
The 6-3 vote means in all likelihood the requirement to show ID at the polls will not be in effect for the election. But Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he would seek ways to reinstate the law within the month… “I believe the voter ID law is constitutional, and nothing in the court’s order suggests otherwise,” the second-term Republican said in his statement.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reports that the Texas and Wisconsin rulings combined could help as many as one million Americans cast their votes in November.
GAO: Voter ID Depresses Black, Youth Votes
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office offered a study comparing revised voter ID laws in two states against existing rules in others. Associated Press reported the results:
States that toughened their voter identification laws saw steeper drops in election turnout than those that did not, with disproportionate falloffs among black and younger voters, a nonpartisan congressional study released Wednesday concluded.
As of June, 33 states have enacted laws obligating voters to show a photo ID at the polls, the study said. Republicans who have pushed the legislation say the requirement will reduce fraud, but Democrats insist the laws are a GOP effort to reduce Democratic turnout on Election Day. …
The office compared election turnout in Kansas and Tennessee — which tightened voter ID requirements between the 2008 and 2012 elections — to voting in four states that didn’t change their identification requirements.
It estimated that reductions in voter turnout were about 2 percent greater in Kansas and from 2 percent to 3 percent steeper in Tennessee than they were in the other states examined. The four other states, which did not make their voter ID laws stricter, were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, and Maine.
“GAO’s analysis suggests that the turnout decreases in Kansas and Tennessee beyond decreases in the comparison states were attributable to changes in those two states’ voter ID requirements,” the report said.
Supreme Court Upholds Country’s “Worst Voting Restrictions”
On October 1, a federal appeals court issued a mixed decision for voting rights advocates in North Carolina, where in 2013, the legislature passed what are arguably the most restrictive voting rules in the US. The Nation’s Ari Berman reported the good news: that the court ruled that North Carolina had to restore same-day registration and that ballots cast in the wrong precinct would have to be counted in 2014.
But there was bad news as well:
The appeals court also upheld: “(i) the reduction of early-voting days; (ii) the expansion of allowable voter challengers; (iii) the elimination of the discretion of county boards of elections to keep the polls open an additional hour on Election Day in ‘extraordinary circumstances’; (iv) the elimination of pre-registration of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who will not be eighteen years old by the next general election; and (v) the soft roll-out of voter identification requirements to go into effect in 2016.”
On Wednesday evening, the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority overruled the appeals court’s decision.
Because this was an order to stay the injunction, not a decision on the full merits of the law, the Court’s majority did not explain its reasoning. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented…
The Supreme Court’s decision could have a very negative impact on the election. Nearly 100,000 voters used same-day registration during the early voting period in 2012, including twice as many blacks as whites. Roughly 7,500 voters cast their ballots in the right county but wrong precinct in 2012.
States with same-day registration, like North Carolina, have the highest voter turnout in the country. “Average voter turnout was over 10 percentage points higher in SDR states than in other states,” Demos reported for 2012. North Carolinians now have only two more days to register to vote before the October 10 deadline.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “The Court of Appeals determined that at least two of the measures—elimination of same-day registration and termination of out-of-precinct voting—risked significantly reducing opportunities for black voters to exercise the franchise in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. I would not displace that record-based reasoned judgment.”
The court’s ruling came less than two weeks after it upheld an Ohio law limiting early voting.
Unfounded Accusations in Georgia
A group called the New Georgia Project (NGP) was enjoying significant success registering people of color to vote. In early September, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, charged that the group was engaging in voter fraud, and opened an investigation that included an expansive subpoena that disrupted NGP’s operations for weeks.
Two weeks later, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that “investigators [had] backed away… from allegations a Democratic-backed group may have organized voter registration fraud” after they found only 25 bad applications — and 26 more “suspect” documents — out of 85,000 the group had submitted. Any canvassing operation will produce some forgeries, and that number is quite low.
Kemp insisted that he wasn’t engaged in a partisan witch-hunt. He said that he was simply following up on complaints made by six different local election officials, and implied that there had been numerous problems. But an open records request revealed that there had in fact been only a single complaint about the group’s canvassing efforts, and that had been submitted four months prior to Kemp’s crusade.
Nonetheless, some 40,000 registrations are in limbo, as Georgia State Rep. Stacey Abrams, the state’s House Minority Leader and NGP founder, explained to Rachel Maddow Thursday night.
Virginia’s Gerrymandered Districts
On Tuesday, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ordered Virginia lawmakers to redraw the state’s congressional district maps, which Republicans aggressively gerrymandered under former Governor Bob McDonnell.
ThinkProgress’ legal analyst Ian Millhiser reported:
One of the most aggressive gerrymanders in the country is unconstitutional, according to a divided three-judge panel in Virginia. In 2012, President Barack Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney by three points in the state of Virginia. Nevertheless, Republicans control eight of the state’s eleven congressional districts. Yet, according to an opinion by Judge Allyson Duncan, a George W. Bush appointee, the maps that produced this result are unconstitutional and the legislature must “act within the next legislative session to draw a new congressional district plan.”
The flaw in the current maps arises from the state’s Third Congressional District, currently represented by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). In a professed effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act… the new maps packed an additional 44,711 African American voters into Rep. Scott’s district — thus preventing these black voters from influencing elections in other districts. This decision, according to the court, was not allowed.
The decision won’t impact next month’s vote, but should lead to a more favorable map for Democrats in 2016.
For much more on the battle for voting rights in the states, see the Brennan Center for Justice’s Election 2014 midterm resources page.