Courts block voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas, ahead of 2014 midterms

In a tough evening for voter ID laws, the Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin's from taking effect Thursday, while a federal judge in Texas ruled that state's law violated the Constitution.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP
An election official checks a voter’s photo identification at an early voting polling site in Austin, Texas, Feb. 26. In two separate rulings, courts blocked voter ID laws in Texas and Wisconsin, Thursday.

The US Supreme Court blocked a politically contentious voter identification law in Wisconsin late Thursday – a setback for Republican efforts to require all voters to present a valid, photo ID before casting ballots in the Nov. 4 elections.

At nearly the same time Thursday evening, a federal judge in Texas ruled that a similar Republican voter ID measure violated the Constitution, saying the Texas law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.”  

The judge, Nelva Gonzales Ramos, appointed by President Obama to the southern district of Texas, also said the measure “constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.”

Voter ID laws have been a deeply partisan issue throughout the country the past few years. Thursday’s rulings come as Democrats in a number of Republican-controlled states bitterly contest recent measures that GOP lawmakers insist are necessary to combat voter fraud.

In 2010, only two states, Indiana and Georgia, had strict laws requiring photo IDs. But since then, a flurry of new strict photo ID laws have been enacted by eight more GOP-controlled states, including Texas and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And voters in at least 15 states will face newly tightened polling restrictions this November, as laws banning same-day registration and Sunday voting, as well as laws restricting early voting, also take effect. That's the most since Reconstruction following the Civil War, critics contend. Strict photo-ID laws also have been passed in New Hampshire and North Carolina, but will not go into effect until after 2014.

Democrats say there is scant evidence of voter impersonation, insisting such measures are merely attempts to suppress the votes of older and mostly low-income and minority citizens, many of whom do not have the required photo IDs. The majority of such voters tend to vote for Democrats, experts say.

A new report issued by the General Accounting Office Wednesday found that voter ID laws disproportionately impact minorities. After implementation of a voter identification requirement, Kansas saw a 3.7 percent greater drop among black voters than among whites.

Many state and federal jurisdictions have been wrangling over the constitutionality of many of the new voter restrictions and photo ID laws implemented after the Supreme Court invalidated sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 last year. The landmark decision ruled that the racial discrimination of the past no longer justified restrictions on state legislatures’ ability to regulate voting procedures.

In a 6 to 3 ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law for the time being. The state law, passed in 2011, has been through a roller coaster of conflicting rulings the past three years in both state and federal courts – also marked by partisan divisions.

Earlier this year, US District Judge Lynn Adelman, nominated by former President Bill Clinton, blocked Wisconsin’s photo ID requirement, saying it would disenfranchise more than 300,000 of Wisconsin’s registered voters, or 9 percent of the electorate, who did not have the required IDs.

But last month, a three-judge panel of Republican appointees vacated Judge Adelman’s order, reinstating the Wisconsin rule. The full 10-judge panel on the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago then deadlocked in a 5 to 5 partisan split when deciding to reconsider the panel’s decision.

Then, on Monday this week, the three-judge panel of Republican appointees ruled the Wisconsin law constitutional, saying it was similar to the 2008 law in Indiana upheld by the Supreme Court.

Civil libertarians filed an emergency appeal the Supreme Court on Tuesday, saying implementing the law so close to the November elections would “sow confusion at the polls and suppress voting in the Nov. 4general election in Wisconsin. Chaos in an election — especially when entirely preventable — is undemocratic.” 

The high court’s ruling on Thursday put a stay on the panel’s decision, without giving a reason for its decision. Conservative justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented.

“I believe the voter ID law is constitutional,” said Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, “and nothing in the court’s order suggests otherwise.”

He added he would try to reinstate the photo ID law in the weeks before the election, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who led the passage of the law, is locked in a fierce reelection battle.

In Texas, the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott also rejected the ruling by Judge Gonzales Ramos.

“The state of Texas will immediately appeal and will urge the Fifth Circuit to resolve this matter quickly to avoid voter confusion in the upcoming election,” his office said in a statement. “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.”

Experts expect the nation’s highest court to take up the issue in coming sessions, given the strong ruling by the federal circuit court in Texas.

“Texas failed to identify a single instance of in-person voter fraud—the purported justification for Texas’ photo ID law,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is party to the Texas case. “The Court today effectively ruled that racial discrimination simply cannot spread to the ballot box.”

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