Voting rights advocates celebrated last month after a string of court rulings against a group of restrictive voting laws seemed to knock out some major hurdles to the ballot this fall. But now they're having to fight tooth and nail to keep those wins on the board.
On Wednesday, a federal appeals court reinstated a strict version of Wisconsin's voter ID law, which in July had been significantly softened by a lower court. Also on Wednesday, an agreement was announced to soften Texas's ID law, but lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case say they'll need to closely monitor the state's compliance. And in North Carolina, voting rights advocates worry that Republican-controlled local election boards could still restrict access to early voting.
Courts are still weighing other states' voting rules that could have a big impact this fall. Among them are both cuts to early voting and a controversial purge of voter rolls in Ohio, as well as Kansas'scontroversial proof of citizenship requirement for those registering to vote.
The biggest setback for access to the polls was the Wisconsin ruling, in which a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals put a hold on last month's district court decision that eased Wisconsin's strict ID law. The district court had said the state must let voters without ID cast a ballot as long as they signed an affidavit attesting to their identity. But the appeals panel said that remedy didn't distinguish between voters facing genuine burdens in getting an ID and those merely displaying an "unwillingness to make the effort that the Supreme Court has held that a state can require."
That means the strict version of the law will be in effect unless Wednesday's decision is reversed or blocked, either by the full 7th Circuit or by the U.S. Supreme Court. Court watchers say that after the recent semi-retirement of a conservative judge, a majority of the 7th Circuit now appears to be skeptical of ID laws. But whether they'll vote to reverse Wednesday's order is hard to predict.
The district court found that more than 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters, disproportionately racial minorities, lack ID under the law, which caused problems in Democratic-leaning areas during the March primaries. One former Republican staffer who was in the room when the measure was being drafted in 2011 has said GOP lawmakers openly discussed how the goal was to hurt Democrats.
The news is better for voting rights in Texas, though even there, the issue is far from resolved. An appeals court ruled last month that the state's ID law violated the Voting Rights Act and must be substantially softened. Wednesday's agreement, hailed as a victory by plaintiffs, requires Texas to add an affidavit option for those without ID. And the state was prevented from adding additional language to the affidavit that the plaintiffs feared could intimidate some voters.
The deal also requires Texas to keep the court and the plaintiffs closely informed about the details of two crucial campaigns it must now undertake: to educate the public about the change in the law, so that people know about the affidavit option; and to re-train poll workers and other election administrators so that the law is correctly enforced on the ground.
The plaintiffs may need to monitor Texas closely. In its original 2014 ruling, the district court described an earlier Texas public education campaign about the law as "woefully insufficient." As of 4 p.m. Central Time Wednesday, both the website for the Texas Secretary of State, and an affiliated voting site, VoteTexas.gov, continued to say incorrectly that photo ID is required to vote. "[V]oters are now required to present an approved form of photo identification in order to vote in all Texas Elections," VoteTexas.gov says. Neither site prominently informs visitors about the affidavit option.
Confusion over voting restrictions is a key factor in keeping voters from the polls. A study of people in one Texas congressional district found that more than 18 percent of those who didn't vote in the 2014 midterms reported one reason was because they didn't have an ID. But when questioners probed further, they found that fewer than 3 percent actually lacked ID.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the fight has shifted to the local level, after an appeals court panel last month ruled that the state's multi-pronged and restrictive voting law deliberately targeted African-Americans. The state has said it will appeal the ruling against the law to the U.S. Supreme Court, though it appears unlikely that the high court will intervene.
One result of the appeals court ruling was to restore the early voting period to 17 days, after the law, passed in 2013, had cut it to 10. That means local election boards — which, because the state has a Republican governor, are currently controlled by Republicans — must now draw up new plans for early voting. And that has voting rights advocates concerned that some local boards could find ways to reduce hours, especially on the weekend, and to limit the number of sites open, even while complying with the 17-day requirement. The perverse result could be that some voters have fewer early voting opportunities than they would have had under the Republican-backed law.
The head of a prominent conservative think tank in the state has publicly urged local election officials to restrict access to early voting in this way, saying that doing so would just be "partisan politics — it's not racial or anything." And two large counties, Wake and Guilford, have in recent days seen efforts along those lines, though both have been largely unsuccessful.
"Based on what we've seen in Guilford and Wake counties," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, "we're worried that short-sighted or partisan local election officials will not adopt plans that serve the best interests of voters."