While Democrats and Republicans have been busy campaigning and conventioneering these past weeks, federal and state judges have been providing some important clarification on which voters will get a chance to have their say come November. In rulings on voter ID laws in several states, a pattern of judicial opinion is emerging: Obeying the law shouldn’t be made too hard for voters.
Of course, “too hard” is in the eye of the beholder, as demonstrated by conflicting rulings on the issue. But those who worry about voter suppression have been given reason to cheer recently. A sampling:
This week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sent back to a state judge his ruling that upheld the state’s new voter ID law. The justices weren’t satisfied that the new law would provide alternative forms of identification to voters who didn’t have a photo ID. The state judge who initially upheld the law, Robert Simpson, has two weeks to determine that voters won’t be disenfranchised.
In Wisconsin, two state judges barred a new voter ID law because it impaired the right to vote provided by the state constitution. In Texas, a voter ID law won’t be implemented in time for the November election after three U.S. District Court judges rejected it, saying the law’s “strict, unforgiving burdens” made it “the most stringent in the country.”
Still, voter ID proponents have had their own victories, with the Justice Department approving laws in New Hampshire and Virginia.
Why the seemingly conflicting rulings? Primarily, it’s the degree to which the laws make it easy for voters to get IDs or use alternative forms of identification to satisfy requirements. In Virginia, for example, voters can use a current utility bill as a form of ID, and state officials are mailing out 4.7 million free voter cards that also will suffice. Under the rejected Texas law, the minimum cost of getting a voter ID for a resident without a copy of a birth certificate would be $22, and college students couldn’t even use their school IDs.
That Texas law was among the most extreme examples of a Republican legislature attempting to suppress voters who historically lean Democrat. South Carolina, which has appealed DOJ’s rejection of its voter ID law, is another. In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers passed a strict voter ID bill last year that seemed to target Democratic voters, but Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed it and Republicans didn’t have enough votes to override.
Lawmakers would have more credibility if they chose to also address areas where voter fraud occur more often – absentee voting and voter registration. But with voter ID, we understand that some don’t want to wait for a problem to fix it. To that end, a bipartisan commission led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker in 2005 called for uniform photo ID requirements among other reasonable improvements to the administering of elections.
The key is fairness. Should N.C. lawmakers take up a voter ID bill again, their emphasis also should be on helping voters meet the requirements the law would set. Meanwhile this fall, judges will continue to sort through several appeals on voter ID rulings – perhaps leading to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that can offer a more uniform set of guidelines that protects all voices, not just the friendly ones.