Many in Wisconsin breathed a sigh of relief late Thursday when the Supreme Court halted implementation of the state's strict, new voter ID requirements [PDF].
The Wisconsin law was considered to be one of the toughest of what has been a wave of new state election restrictions. Testimony before the High Court estimated roughly 300,000 Badger State voters could be disenfranchised as a result of the statute, which required photographic proof of identity, even for absentee ballots. In Milwaukee County alone, which has the largest African-American population in the state, over 91,000 people would have been denied access to the November ballot, according to research commissioned by challengers of the law [PDF]. The same research found blacks were “182 percent more likely to lack accepted ID, and Latinos ... 206 percent more likely to lack accepted ID" than white voters.
According to University of California law professor Rick Hasen, an election law expert, Wisconsin's state government acknowledged the requirements could bar as much as 10 percent of the population from voting in the upcoming election, a situation those challenging the law deemed “shocking.”
The law was originally passed by a GOP-controlled state legislature and signed by Republican Governor Scott Walker in 2011, but a series of court decisions since had put many of the requirements on hold. Plaintiffs before the Supreme Court this week argued the state was not prepared to communicate new rules and distribute new photo IDs to so many Wisconsin residents, and said suddenly implementing new ID requirements just weeks before the general election would "virtually guarantee chaos."
The point appeared to resonate with the Court majority, which cited the “proximity of the upcoming general election” in their move to suspend the law.
Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas did not sign on to the order, but even Alito's written dissent said the state's timing was "troubling," noting the number of ballots already distributed without any photo ID requirement. Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board estimated in mid-September that approximately 6,500 absentee ballots had been mailed out with no instructions indicating that the voter should return the ballot with a copy of the required ID.
Wisconsin is not a state that had been required to obtain “pre-clearance” for changes to its electoral laws. Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which created this review, initially applied to districts with a history of discriminatory laws and low minority voter turnout. But political shifts — coupled with the Supreme Court's annulment of Section 5 last year — have resulted in a wave of voter restrictions, from elaborate ID requirements to decreases in early voting days and limits on voter registration, which have been shown to disproportionately and unfavorably affect low-income and minority voters.
Within an hour of the Wisconsin decision, a U.S. District judge in Texas threw out that state's new voter ID law, agreeing with a U.S. Justice Department challenge in ruling the statute was enacted with an “unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” The Texas requirement, which infamously disqualified student photo IDs but said gun permits were acceptable identification, was expected to disenfranchise more than 600,000 voters.
Both the court and election expert Hasen said that the new ID requirement was, in essence, a poll tax — something still illegal under federal law.
Thursday's two victories for civil rights advocates came after two recent Supreme Court decisions, in Ohio and North Carolina, that appear less voter-friendly. The Court ruled last week that Ohio could roll back the number of early voting days prior to this election. The additional week of voting (which coincided with the state's last week for voter registration), along with the evening hours and Sundays eliminated by Ohio, “are the opportunities that civil rights groups have said are most important to black and low-income voters and the homeless.”
On Wednesday, the Supremes cleared the way for North Carolina's restrictions, which eliminated same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct voting.
The court's seeming change of heart came on the heels of a new study released by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office that found states that "toughened their voter identification laws saw steeper drops in election turnout than those that did not." The GAO also showed disproportionate declines in participation by African-American and young voters.
Whether the evidence in that study had any effect in the 30-or-so hours between its release and the decisions by the Supreme Court justices and the District judge is impossible to say. Perhaps the sheer magnitude of the disenfranchisement facing voters in Wisconsin and Texas was too much to ignore. In either event, the courts will likely get more chances to evaluate these laws. There are actually other arguments over the Wisconsin law moving through the courts, and, in Texas, state attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has vowed to appeal.
The election is 25 days away.