Earlier this month, voting rights advocates won two important, if partial, victories in court cases challenging the constitutionality of voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas.
In Wisconsin, a district judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring the state to allow citizens who were unable to attain a valid form of photo identification to sign an affidavit to that effect and then cast their ballots. In the decision, the judge argued that “a safety net is needed for those voters who cannot obtain qualifying ID with reasonable effort.” The affidavit system will go into effect for the general election, but will not be in place for the primary on August 9.
As with many voter ID laws across the country, the Wisconsin law was implemented in 2011 ostensibly to advance the state’s interest in combatting voter fraud, although there is very little evidence to suggest that fraud is a real problem in American elections. Only days after the ruling, the Wisconsin Department of Justice announced that it would appeal the decision, claiming that the judge’s plan contradicts precedence from the U.S. Supreme Court and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, Texas’s voter ID law, widely considered to be one of the most restrictive in the country, also suffered a significant setback. On July 20, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 9-6 opinion finding that the law has a discriminatory effect against black, Hispanic and poor voters, and is thus in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Court did not, however, determine whether the state legislature had intended to implement a discriminatory law, instead asking the lower court to reconsider that question. The judges also left it up to the lower court to create a remedy before the November election that would fulfill the purposes of the legislature without racial discrimination.
Texas could seek to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The Wisconsin and Texas decisions demonstrate the complexity of litigating voter ID cases. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Indiana’s voter ID law, finding that the state had a “valid interest” in requiring identification to improve election procedures and deter fraud. Voting rights advocates must therefore prove that such a law has a racially discriminatory effect in violation of the Voting Rights Act in order to win a case against it. And, even when a discriminatory effect is shown, the courts may prefer to find a solution that balances the states’ right to require identification with the need to ensure equal access to the ballot rather than simply overturning the law.
The situation is even more complicated in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in the case Shelby County v. Holder to gut the vital preclearance section of the Voting Rights Act. As a result, states and counties with a long history of voter suppression may now make changes to their election laws without seeking the approval of the federal government. Texas is one of several states previously under preclearance that has taken advantage of a now weakened VRA to implement restrictive voting procedures.
Rooted in our tradition’s teachings about the importance of civic engagement, the Reform Movement opposes efforts to deny easy and equal access to the ballot, including voter ID laws. One of the most important ways to defend against these efforts is to restore and strengthen the VRA through passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act (S. 1659/H.R. 2867). Take action and call on Congress to pass the VRAA.
Another way to ensure that all Americans are able to exercise their democratic right to vote is to join the Reform Movement’s new voter initiative – Nitzavim: Standing Up for Voter Protection and Participation. Click here to learn more about how you can take part in voter registration, engagement and protection ahead of the November elections.