Legal Challenges to Voter-ID Laws: Too Little, Too Late?

A federal court overturned Texas' strict voter-ID law, but plenty of similar laws that discourage minority voting will still be in place come Election Day

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Jeremy Long / Lebanon Daily News / AP

A voter shows his ID card in Cornwall, Pa., for the primary election on April 24, 2012. The primary was also a test run for the new Pennsylvania voter-ID law

In this year’s heated battle over voter-ID laws, the critics have scored a big victory: a federal court overturned Texas’ strict new ID law last week. It is not hard to see why. The state law was a combination of a poll tax and a logistical nightmare. But critics of voter-ID laws should not get too excited. Courts are still far too willing to approve these laws, and there will be plenty of them in place on Election Day on Nov. 6.

Texas’ law, which was enacted last year, would have been the nation’s strictest. (It could yet return; Texas says it will appeal the ruling blocking it.) It required voters to present one of an approved list of photo IDs in order to vote. There was a certain slant to the list: gun permits counted; student IDs did not. The law would have made at least 600,000 voters without valid ID ineligible to vote, according to the Justice Department, and it hit minorities hardest. Hispanic voters in Texas are at least 46.5% and perhaps 120% more likely than non-Hispanics to lack a photo ID.

For voters without ID, the state law made many people pay to vote, the way poll taxes once did. To get the necessary ID, voters had to present documents like a birth certificate, which can cost $22 or more. With 2 in 5 households living paycheck to paycheck, the law forced some people to make a choice between putting food on the table or a ballot in the ballot box.

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Then there was the physical inconvenience. Voters were supposed to go to a driver’s-license office to get their ID, but 81 of Texas’ 254 counties do not have a working driver’s-license office. As a result, some voters had to travel up to 250 miles if they wanted to vote.

Supporters of the law made the usual argument that they just wanted to prevent voter fraud. But there are almost no cases of people impersonating other people at the polls — in Texas or anywhere else. One study found that voter fraud occurs in about 0.00004% of votes or less — about as often as Americans are struck by lightning.

The driving force behind voter-ID laws is actually the desire to suppress turnout, particularly minority turnout — as it was with the Florida law that made it harder for groups to register new voters and Ohio’s recent edict stopping early voting for most voters. (The Florida and Ohio laws were also struck down last week.) Not surprisingly, there is evidence that voter-ID laws do keep eligible voters away from the polls. A 2008 study in Indiana found that 7% of eligible voters who did not vote cited lack of the correct form of ID as one of the reasons.

The special three-judge court that struck down the Texas law did not get into anyone’s motives. It just made a point of simple logic. The Voting Rights Act prevents states from passing laws diminishing minority voting rights. Texas’ law made it harder for poor people to vote. And Hispanic voters in Texas are poorer than non-Hispanic whites.

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The ruling is good news, but of a limited sort. The law was struck down because Texas is one of only 16 states that are covered, in whole or in part, by this part of the Voting Rights Act. Thirty-four states, and large parts of another seven, are not covered by the act, so in most of the country, the arguments that persuaded the court would not apply. On the broader question of whether unduly harsh voter-ID laws violate the Constitution, the Supreme Court has been of no help. In 2008, in Crawford v. Marion County, it upheld Indiana’s law, which requires a photo ID. That ruling has given an unfortunate green light to other states to pass strict ID laws.

There are still two major challenges to voter-ID laws working their way through the courts. Pennsylvania’s ID law was upheld last month, but the ruling is on appeal. South Carolina’s law is in federal court, being challenged under the Voting Rights Act. But however those cases come out, roughly two-thirds of the states will likely have a voter-ID law on Election Day.

If there were a lot of voter fraud going on, the case for voter-ID laws would be stronger, and even many opponents might be persuaded to support them — particularly if the laws made it easy and free to get ID. But when this fraud happens with lightning-fatality frequency and the laws put up sizable obstacles to voting, it is hard to view them as anything but vote-suppression laws. They should not be passed, and if they are, courts should strike them down.

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