Here’s Why This Was a Big Week for Voter Rights

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Two major victories for anti-voter ID law proponents took place this week as the Supreme Court granted a stay to Wisonsin voting laws just prior to the November election, and a federal judge in Texas ruled against the Texas voter ID laws.  Voter ID laws have been changing in a number of states around the U.S., sparking controversy over their necessity and whether or not they limit voter rights in a targeted or inappropriate way. While the ruling in Texas was a step in the right direction, the Supreme Court ruling merely put off an unjust state ruling, and did nothing to change the laws in a number of other states.

Proponents argue that ID laws will decrease voter fraud. Opponents — largely on the left — argue that available data on voter fraud suggests it’s hardly a concern, with only 120 individuals charged, according to an investigation by The New York Times, and only 86 convicted over the course of the five years of examined data. They also argue that African Americans and the elderly are far more likely not to have state-issued IDs, and that it’s no coincidence these demographics tend to vote Democrat, and Republicans are behind much of the voter ID legislation.

The Supreme Court ruling on Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s law was made even more divisive due to its timing so close to the November elections and the close nature of the Senate elections there. The poor timing of the legislation mean that absentee ballots had even been sent out without instructions on ID requirements, and as a result many votes could have been dismissed, or may require further voter action in a short time window in order to be counted.

The Supreme Court was the state’s last chance to delay the law after the Seventh Circuit court lifted the stay on ID requirements last month, insisting that the 10% of voters who lacked ID still had time to get identification before the elections in November. The state of Wisconsin argued during the trail that this left 90% of voters who did have ID, and those 10% had “more than three years to get one,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The state’s attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, said Wisconsin would be looking for different ways to deal with the problems voiced by the court, but said “I believe the voter ID law is constitutional, and nothing in the court’s order suggests otherwise.”

The SCOTUS’s majority ruling granted the stay without comment, while the three dissenters, Justice Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas argued that “this Court ‘may not vacate a stay entered by a court of appeals unless that court clearly and ‘demonstrably’ erred in its application of ‘accepted standards,’” which they argue the Seventh Circuit court did not.

Still, they admit that “there is a colorable basis for the Court’s decision due to the proximity of the upcoming general election,” and address the “particularly troubling” absentee ballots which “have been sent out without any notation that proof of photo identification must be submitted.” The dissent appears to be a technical one, as opposed to a principled stance in favor of ID laws, but ultimately neither this nor the stay suggests a satisfactory end to the Wisconsin voter issue.

Attorney General Eric Holder called reduction to early voting in Ohio “a major step backwards” earlier this week, saying it would lessen the ability of “people to exercise their civic responsibility … preserving access and openness for every eligible voter,” including those who don’t make enough to skip work or hire a babysitter. For Holder, the Supreme Court ruling and the ruling in Texas were steps forward amid this negativity, but his rhetoric suggested an understanding that the battle is far from won.

The ruling in Texas

The ruling in Texas was a particularly positive sign as it struck down the ID laws rather than simply placing a hold on a pr0-ID ruling. The ruling held that Senate Bill 14, the identification legislation, “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 court also found that the law “constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.”

We are extremely heartened by the court’s decision,” said Holder on Thursday. “The Texas voter identification law unfairly and unnecessarily restricts access to the franchise.”

The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which took part in the Texas suit, released a celebratory statement after the ruling was released. “Follow a two week trial that included testimony from nearly 40 witnesses, Texas failed to identify a single instance of in-person voter fraud — the purported justification for Texas’s photo ID law,” said President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP LDF Sherrilyn Ifill in a statement. Texas may be going into November free of restrictive voting measures, but seven other states — Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Indiana, Mississippi, Kansas, and Arkansas — still enforce strict ID laws.

More Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS