Opponents of voter ID requirements scored two court victories this week against controversial laws in Wisconsin and Texas:
On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking a voter ID law Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed in 2011. The court cited no reason for its move, which is common for emergency orders. Voting rights advocates challenging the law had charged that if it were in effect in November it would “virtually guarantee chaos at the polls,” the New York Times reported, as the state would not have enough time to issue IDs and train poll workers before the election. There are about 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin who lack an ID. Most of them are black or Hispanic. Also on Thursday, a federal trial court in Texas struck down that state’s voter ID law, ruling that it overly burdened minority voters, who are less likely to have a government-issued ID, and as such violated the Voting Rights Act. More than 600,000 registered voters in Texas lack appropriate IDs.
But North Carolina voters weren’t as lucky:
Voters in North Carolina will not have access to same-day registration or out-of-precinct voting in this midterm election, after the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked an appellant court order to stay parts of a sweeping voting law that voting-rights advocates say could leave many voters disenfranchised come November.
Richard L. Hasen make sense of these ruling:
Sometimes (as in Wisconsin) the Supreme Court has been protecting voters; at other times (as in Ohio and North Carolina) it appears to be protecting the ability of states to impose whatever voting rules they want.
But there is a consistent theme in the court’s actions, which we can call the “Purcell principle” after the 2006 Supreme Court case Purcell v. Gonzalez: Lower courts should be very reluctant to change the rules just before an election, because of the risk of voter confusion and chaos for election officials. The Texas case may raise the hardest issue under the Purcell principle, and how it gets resolved will matter a lot for these types of election challenges going forward.
Waldman tells Democrats not to count on the courts to strike down voter ID laws:
[W]e shouldn’t be encouraged by the Wisconsin ruling: it doesn’t imply that the Court believes these restrictions are unconstitutional, only that it would be a mess to have them take effect just a few weeks before the election. It’s a narrow question of election procedure.
It would be going too far to say that Democrats should just abandon all court challenges to these voting laws. You never know what might happen—by the time the next major case reaches the Supreme Court, one of the five conservatives could have retired. But the only real response is the much more difficult one: a sustained, state-by-state campaign to counter voting suppression laws by registering as many people as possible, helping them acquire the ID the state is demanding, and getting them to the polls. That’s incredibly hard, time-consuming, and resource-intensive work—much more so than filing lawsuits. But Democrats don’t have much choice.
Referring to the above chart, Philip Bump outlines the Government Accountability Office’s findings about the effects of the Kansas and Tennessee voter ID laws, which had significant impacts on turnout in 2012, especially among young and minority voters:
According to data from the states (here and here), turnout dropped 5.5 percentage points overall in Kansas and 4.5 percent in Tennessee. With registered voter pools of about 1.77 million and 4 million, respectively, that means that 34,000 Kansans and 88,000 Tennesseans likely would have voted if the new laws weren’t in place. The effects of the change weren’t evenly distributed. … Young people, black people, and newly registered voters were the groups that were more likely to see bigger drops in turnout. Sixteen percent of voters in Kansas in 2012 were under the age of 30, according to exit polls. In 2008, the group comprised 19 percent of the vote. That change wasn’t entirely due to voter ID, of course, but the GAO report suggests it played a part.