Federal Courts Halt Voter ID Laws

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 11, 2014

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Late this week, the Supreme Court and a lower federal court halted two laws that require voters to present photo identification before casting votes in the upcoming election.  As it has become an increasingly contested debate between liberal and conservative politicians, voter ID legislation promises to be a focus of state lawmakers and federal judges this election season.

Wisconsin Voter ID Law Faces Constitutional Challenge

Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law was passed in 2011 and requires every potential voter to present a state or federal issued photo identification before they can cast a ballot. Additionally, every absentee ballot must be accompanied by a copy of photo identification or it will not be counted.  Although the Supreme Court ultimately decided to block the law citing logistics of enacting it for the upcoming election cycle, Wisconsin’s voter ID legislation has been the subject of constitutional challenges across federal courts since its passage three years ago, and several courts have declined to enforce it.

From its inception, Wisconsin’s voter ID law has faced vigorous opposition from the political left, alleging that it would effectively prevent the state’s black and Latino voters from casting ballots – an argument that proponents of voter ID laws across the United States have been forced to address for years.  The Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution prohibits any law, even ones that are racially neutral, from having a disparate impact on minorities.  If enforcement of a law will negatively affect the protected rights of minority citizens, then federal courts may find illegal disparate impact and strike the legislation as a violation of Equal Protection. 

In the case of Wisconsin’s voter ID law, challengers have argued that it places an unfair burden on minority voters who are less likely to have satisfactory photo identification, and a number of court rulings have blocked all, or part, of the law in the intervening years since it was passed.

SCOTUS Stops Wisconsin Voter ID Law

Last month the law was provisionally reinstated by a panel of three federal appeals judges in Chicago, generating an appeal of the decision by the law’s opponents to the Supreme Court.  Although the Justices have not yet determined if the Court will hear arguments on the ultimate issue of whether the law unconstitutionally targets minority voters, the Supremes voted to put a temporary hold on the law until its fate is decided.  Challengers to the law asked SCOTUS to issue the temporary stay by arguing that enacting the provisions with the election so close would “virtually guarantee chaos at the polls [because] whatever the legality, [the court of appeals] said, the state cannot issue enough IDs and train enough poll workers before the November election.”

Six of the Justices agreed that enforcing the law at this late stage without a full review of its constitutionality would create too much confusion, and, until the Court takes further action, Wisconsin’s voter ID requirements will not be in effect come November.  Three of the Justices dissented from the order, arguing that, while the logistics will be difficult, there is no evidence the lower federal court erred by deciding Wisconsin’s law did not violate the constitution.  Whether or not Wisconsin’s voter ID regulations are constitutional could be decided by the Supreme Court at some point in the future, but for the moment the legislation will not impact the upcoming vote.

Lower Federal Court Strike Texas Voter ID Law

A federal judge in Texas weighed in on voter ID requirements by finding the state’s new legislation unconstitutional for unfairly burdening black and Hispanic populations.  US District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote, “The Court holds that SB 14 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,” and struck the Texas voter ID statute only weeks before early voting is scheduled to begin.

Texas’ voter ID law passed in 2011 in order to prevent fraud at the ballot box, but the law was in a holding pattern until a 2013 Supreme Court ruling allowed the state to enforce it.  Upon its enforcement the law’s opponents, including the Department of Justice and the NAACP, encouraged legal action challenging its constitutionality which resulted in this week’s decision.  Texas officials issued a statement promising an immediate appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Voter ID laws will be a hot legal topic this election cycle, and it is likely this week’s decisions will not be the last time the judiciary weighs in on the constitutionality of requiring photo identification at the ballot box.


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