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As Midterm Elections Near, Courts Are Taking On Voter Suppression

With less than a month before the November 4 elections, courts are weighing in on voting rights across the nation.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

In a victory for voters in Wisconsin, the US Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the state’s new voter identification law from taking effect in November. As a result of the Court’s decision, registered voters in Wisconsin will not have to show identification before casting ballots on November 4.

Enacted in 2011, the Wisconsin Voter ID law had faced ongoing legal challenges. The law would have required voters to show one of only nine specific forms of photo identification in order to cast a ballot. Tens of thousands of eligible voters in Wisconsin, however, do not have one of these forms of ID. A federal trial judge had originally blocked the law citing its disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic voters. A panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit had reinstated the law before the Supreme Court blocked it from being enforced during the upcoming election.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin called the Supreme Court’s order “wonderful news and a victory” for Wisconsin voters. “We should be seeking ways to get more citizens to vote in our elections,” the League reiterated in a statement, “not to keep them away.”

Meanwhile, in Texas, a federal district court struck down that state’s strict voter ID law. The Texas voter suppression law allowed voters to cast a ballot only if they produced a Texas driver’s license, a US military ID with a photo, a US citizenship certification containing a photo, a US passport, or a license to carry a concealed handgun. Student IDs and social security cards were not considered acceptable forms of identification. In addition to suppressing the votes of people of color, then, the Texas law also suppressed the votes of women, students, and the elderly.

In her decision, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, an Obama appointee, wrote that the 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.” She concluded that the law was tantamount to “an unconstitutional poll tax.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has already asked the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reinstate the Voter ID law. It is unclear when the appeals court will consider the state’s request. Early voting in Texas begins on October 20.

Although both the Wisconsin and Texas decisions have pushed back against voter suppression laws, the Supreme Court last week reinstated part of a North Carolina law that eliminated same-day voter registration during the early voting period. The Court’s order also allows the state to eliminate out-of-precinct voting. Both provisions had been struck down by a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit earlier this month.

State courts are also being asked to weigh in on voting rights. In Georgia, civil rights groups filed a lawsuit on Friday concerning more than 40,000 voter registration forms that are currently backlogged, some of them filled out and submitted months ago. Many activists are arguing that the backlog is so large that it amounts to an act of voter suppression. The lawsuit requests that a judge order five counties and Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp to immediately process the backlogged forms.

“Waiting for the state to act is not an option for us because we have folks who applied back in March and April who have yet to make it onto the rolls,” explained Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams. Abrams also runs the New Georgia Project, a voter registration initiative.

Media Resources: US Supreme Court 10/9/14, 10/8/14; US District Court for the Southern District of Texas 10/9/14; SCOTUS Blog 10/11/14, 10/9/14; Politico, 10/11/14; League of Women Voters of Wisconsin 10/9/14; Feminist Newswire 10/2/14, 5/5/14, 10/22/13; MSNBC 10/9/13

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