By Mike Lillis
Critics of tough voter ID laws are running out of time and options in their efforts to knock down those barriers ahead of this year’s midterm elections.
Opponents got good news last week, when a state judge struck down Arkansas’s law, and another jolt Tuesday, when a federal judge ruled Wisconsin’s law, which wasn’t yet in effect, was unconstitutional.
Yet on Capitol Hill, the voter ID issue remains as partisan as ever, forcing even the sponsors of bills softening those rules to concede that their legislation has no chance of moving through a divided Congress in 2014.
“My bill probably doesn’t have a lot of hope to it right now,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who’s pushing a proposal essentially nullifying many of the state-based ID requirements enacted in recent years, mostly by GOP legislatures, in the name of tackling election fraud.
Instead, Democrats, advocates and other voter ID critics see their best hope in passing an update to the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the 1965 civil rights law that the Supreme Court gutted last summer.
Sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the 2014 Voting Rights Act Amendment (VRAA) explicitly empowers states to adopt tougher voter ID requirements — an inclusion designed to attract conservative support — but it could also force some of those states to scale back those ID laws, a possibility being cheered by liberal voting rights advocates.
The Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill remains a long shot, but on the issue of voting rights, voices on all sides of the debate say it’s the only game in town.
The debate over voter ID laws took off in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s VRA decision in June, when several states were empowered to implement previously passed photo ID mandates that would have required federal “preclearance” approval under the VRA provisions rejected by the court.
Prior to the ruling, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi had all passed such laws, which had not received preclearance, while North Carolina enacted a similarly tough version a month after the decision.
Under the original Voting Rights Act, the federal government would have had the power to scrutinize all of those laws in an effort to ensure they didn’t discriminate against certain voters. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, the states were free to install the changes immediately. All are expected to be in place in November, triggering warnings from advocates that some voters will be denied their right to vote.
“There’s a material concern that there will be a sizable portion of the population that will not have the kind of ID needed to cast a vote that will count,” said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice.
The issue has long been a partisan one. Most Republicans support tougher ID requirements, saying they’re a necessary precaution for fighting voter fraud.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) office reiterated his support for those laws this month. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who has jurisdiction over the issue, also has a long record of backing voter ID provisions.
Most Democrats, meanwhile, maintain that the fraud concerns are largely manufactured. They contend the tougher ID rules are a GOP tool — alongside proof-of-citizenship requirements, registration restrictions and limits on early voting — aimed to discourage voting by minorities, students and other disproportionately low-income populations, which tend to vote Democratic.
The Texas law, for instance, treats concealed gun licenses but not public university ID cards as legitimate forms of voter ID. Both are state-issued and feature photographs.
Perez said such discrepancies create “the strong appearance that politicians are trying to manipulate the rules to target certain populations.”
Some Democrats are coalescing behind a push to put photos on Social Security cards as a solution. The idea came earlier this month from Andrew Young, chairman of the nonpartisan voting rights group Why Tuesday. And the former U.N. ambassador has won the backing of former Presidents Clinton and Carter for his idea.
Of the 12 states that have passed strict photo ID laws, eight of which will apply those rules in November, 10 enacted the changes at times when Republicans had single-party control over both the legislature and the governorship, according to the Brennan Center.
The partisan nature of the voter ID push has not been lost on President Obama, who earlier this month said Republican efforts to apply tougher rules represent the greatest threat to voting rights in 50 years.
“Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote. … Senior citizens who have been voting for decades may suddenly be told they can no longer vote until they can come up with the right ID,” Obama said April 11 at the National Action Network’s annual convention in New York.
“I am not against reasonable attempts to secure the ballot. We understand that there [have] to be rules in place,” the president added. “But I am against requiring an ID that millions of Americans don’t have. That shouldn’t suddenly prevent you from exercising your right to vote.”
The concerns have led Obama’s Justice Department to step in with a series of lawsuits challenging some tougher state ID laws, including those in Texas and North Carolina. But, it’s unclear how many of those other cases will be decided ahead of November’s elections.
Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), who has filed a separate lawsuit against his state over its ID law, said he’s fighting to secure a ruling in time to influence the elections.
“We had some issues during the primary, and I believe there will be even more issues when a larger number of people turn out [in November],” he said. “That’s what’s worrisome, you know, that people start hearing on the news that they’re trying to make it harder to vote, and then people decide that they’re not even going to show up and exercise their right.”
The potential interactions between the state ID laws, the lingering lawsuits and the possibility that Congress could still pass the Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill have created something of an uncertain landscape heading into the elections.
In the case of Texas, for instance, passage of the VRAA would return the state to preclearance status, likely leading the DOJ to amend its lawsuit against the voter ID law. If the Texas law were upheld by the court, however, it would take effect regardless what Congress does with the VRAA. In a third scenario, if the court ruled against the Texas ID law and then the VRAA were enacted, the state would require the DOJ’s approval if lawmakers tried again with another voter ID proposal in the future.
Three other states — Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana — would also be subject to the extra election scrutiny under the Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill. Of those, Mississippi and Georgia have strict ID laws requiring people without a photo ID to vote on a provisional ballot and return within three to six days to show such identification.
Two states previously subject to preclearance under the VRA, Virginia and Alabama, also have strict photo ID laws but would not be subject to the extra scrutiny under the VRAA.
Larsen, the Washington Democrat, predicted the landscape wouldn’t be quite so complicated but not for reasons he supports. Rather, he said House Republican leaders simply have little appetite for moving the Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill.
“Right now, I don’t see it happening,” Larsen said. “There’s not the energy [among House Republicans] to do much of anything.”
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