Rulings may make voter ID laws presidential race nonfactors
Austin, Texas — Federal courts have reined in strict voter ID laws in Texas and Wisconsin, while a legal battle continues to rage over North Carolina’s rules mandating showing identification at the polls — even after lawmakers there took pre-emptive steps to soften them.
The court ruling almost certainly won’t be enough for Democrat Hillary Clinton to win fiercely conservative Texas in November, and Wisconsin has been reliably blue enough in recent presidential cycles that the legal setback for its voter ID law may not prove decisive, either.
North Carolina could be enough of a swing state that the fate of its election rules may have an impact — but exactly where its voter ID requirements will stand by Election Day on Nov. 8 remains to be seen.
What is coming into clearer focus is just how hard it could be for Republican-controlled states to enforce tougher ballot box restrictions that energized conservative activists when they were approved in statehouses around the country in recent years. That means an issue that looked to be a slam dunk for the right following the rise of the tea party in 2010 may actually be little more than an afterthought during this year’s make-or-break presidential election.
“An unelected federal court struck down key components of Texas’ voter ID law against the will of the people,” said Texas state Sen. Charles Perry, a co-author of his state’s law.
More than 30 states have some form of voter ID rules. But prior to this week the measures in only nine — including Texas and Wisconsin — were considered especially restrictive.
Republican statehouses have passed a flurry of voter ID laws in recent years, saying they help safeguard the integrity of the ballot box. But civil rights groups counter that the laws make it harder for poor and minority voters to cast ballots because they tend to support Democrats.
On Wednesday, a New Orleans-based federal appeals court ruled that Texas’ requiring voters to show one of seven approved forms of identification at the polls had a discriminatory effect on poor and minority Texans and had to be corrected.
A lower court now will have to work with the state to ensure that anyone without approved identification can still vote in November. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos has instructed Texas and its opponents in the case to begin meeting before the end of the month and submit a draft of proposed fixes by Aug. 5.
The Texas decision followed a federal court’s blocking Wisconsin’s voter ID law and providing a legal workaround allowing people who haven’t been able to obtain IDs to vote in the presidential election if they sign an affidavit explaining why they couldn’t. That order won’t apply to the state’s Aug. 9 primary, though.
“Courts are starting to recognize that states have taken the ball and run way too far with it in these voter ID requirements,” said attorney Deuel Ross with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing a black student at Prairie View A&M University who challenged the Texas law. College IDs aren’t valid under Texas’ law, but concealed handgun licenses are.
Ross wouldn’t speculate on the fix Texas will use to get through the November election but said a “serious look” is being taken at how the Wisconsin judge approved voters signing affidavits.
In April, a federal judge in North Carolina upheld much of that state’s sweeping new election rules, including voter ID requirements, shorter early voting periods and the repealing of a measure allowing people to register the same day they vote.
But that decision came after last year, when North Carolina lawmakers relaxed their state’s voter ID law to let residents cast ballots even if they lacked proper documentation. If a higher court doesn’t intervene, the election regulations will remain in place in November.
North Carolina’s presidential race could be competitive since Barack Obama narrowly carried the state in 2008 but lost to Mitt Romney four years later.
That won’t be the case in Texas, where Republican Donald Trump remains the overwhelming favorite. More than 600,000 Texas voters — or about 4.5 percent of all registered voters statewide — lacked a valid ID under the state’s law, a lower court found in 2014. Romney beat Obama by nearly 1.3 million votes in Texas in 2012.
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