States, GOP Lawmakers Eye Tougher Election Laws

 

The run-up to the 2012 elections was one of court battles and legislative jockeying over Republican-backed voter ID and elections laws that critics called bald-faced attempts to suppress turnout and disenfranchise Democratic voters.

Now with 2013 legislative sessions getting under way, those fights show no signs of slowing.

Lawmakers in as many as a dozen states are considering new or tougher voter ID laws this year, many of which are expected to become law despite criticism similar moves received in 2012. Indeed, it already seems likely more states will have stricter elections administration schemes come 2014 than there were just last year.

In North Carolina, for example, a voter ID requirement is expected to easily pass the GOP-dominated legislature and gain the favor of new Republican Governor Pat McCrory this session. Former Democratic Governor Bev Perdue vetoed a similar measure last year. In Virginia, Republican lawmakers, including two GOP candidates for attorney general, are proposing to strengthen the state’s identification requirement that currently allows utility bills, bank statements or other paperwork.

Lawmakers in Montana, Nevada, Iowa, Idaho, Missouri, West Virginia, Arkansas and elsewhere are also considering voter ID proposals of varying scope this year.

The movement in the states comes as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on a pair of elections cases in coming weeks, ensuring that tension over elections law will remain in the months ahead.

In late February, the court will hear a challenge to a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that gives the federal government preclearance authority over elections law changes in jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination. That provision has proven significant in either forcing states to moderate voter ID laws (such as in the case of South Carolina) or in blocking particularly harsh ones (as happened with Texas’ law).

Then in March, the court will hear arguments over an Arizona law that required voters to show proof of citizenship to register to vote or cast their ballots. A federal court said the requirement violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which Congress passed to standardize registration and encourage turnout. Arizona has called the decision an overreach that infringed on its authority to regulate elections; the outcome could be significant in future state-federal disputes over election administration.

The battles extend into state courts as well, where opponents will continue to mount legal challenges to block or weaken the requirements. And in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, already-enacted voter ID laws remain before the courts.

Last year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided against a fast-tracked decision that might have allowed the requirement to be in place on Election Day, leaving the matter unresolved. An April election, in which state Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack (considered a member of the court’s 4-3 conservative majority) faces re-election, could swing the eventual outcome.

In Pennsylvania, a hearing this summer will decide whether to permanently strike down the state’s voter ID law or allow it for future elections. A Commonwealth Court judge blocked the measure on narrow grounds last year because the state was found to have too little time to properly implement it. Because of that, most expect it will eventually be allowed to proceed.

And so it seems the greatest momentum and prospect for change remains with those pushing voter ID and similar measures, particularly as courts have generally approved such laws in recent years. But the news hasn’t been completely dire for anti-voter ID and elections advocates.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who was under fire for paring back early voting last year, has since come out in favor of more early voting. In Ohio, the scene of many elections battles, Secretary of State Jon Husted has ordered local governments to convene formal hearings to document alleged voter fraud. Advocates have long doubted the existence of any such fraud, but many say forcing governments to compile evidence, rather than allowing hearsay to stand in its place, could prove helpful in the broader debate.

Still, such positive signs for advocates are small compared to the calls for national elections reform that took hold after Election Day. On the night he was re-elected, President Obama vowed to advocate for reforms to help stem irregularities, long lines and other issues that plagued polling places last November.

A few sweeping proposals have been proposed in Congress, but have so far gained little traction. They include standardized administration, competitive grants and even a national requirement for same-day registration. But as with many other issues in Washington, they’ve become quickly embroiled in squabbling over spending, federal overreach and partisanship.

 
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