Election law

  • January 23, 2014
    Guest Post
    by Marian Schneider, Senior Attorney, Advancement Project
    In a win for democracy, last Friday Judge Bernard J. McGinley of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania struck down Pennsylvania’s voter ID law. Among other problems cited in the court’s decision, this restrictive law violated the right to vote, which is expressly guaranteed in Pennsylvania’s Constitution. The decision is important not only because hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters, who lack one of the limited forms of acceptable photo ID previously required under the law, can now cast their ballots without burdensome obstacles – but also because of the court’s willingness to enforce the guarantee of a fundamental right to vote as enshrined in the Pennsylvania Constitution.
    Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Pennsylvania Constitution explicitly recognizes the right to vote, stating that “no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.” The Commonwealth Court reaffirmed that this right is fundamental, as well as “pervasive of other basic civil and political rights.” As the court explained, elections are “free and equal” only when they are public and open to all qualified voters, when every voter has the same opportunity to cast a ballot, when that ballot is honestly counted, and when the regulation of elections does not deny the exercise of the right to vote.
    According to the court, the voter ID law violated the state constitution because it required photo ID without mandating any legal, non-burdensome way for voters to get it. Instead, the measure merely required that the existing non-driver photo ID issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) be provided for “free.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, already held in 2012 that PennDOT failed to uphold that requirement because of the underlying documents required, such as a birth certificate (which can be costly or, in some cases, not exist at all); the limited PennDOT locations where ID cards were even available; and the burdens faced by voters who had to travel to one of these centers and wait in line to get an ID. In light of these obstacles, the Department of State attempted to create a “just for voting” ID (DOS ID), but the Commonwealth Court held that this ID was an unauthorized agency creation that failed to pass constitutional muster. The DOS ID suffered from similar problems as the PennDOT ID because it created barriers that prevented voters who lacked compliant ID from getting it.
  • November 26, 2013
    This past June, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in “arguably one of the most successful acts passed by Congress in any area,” said Richard Reuben, the James Lewis Parks Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law, at a recent event on Shelby County v. Holder hosted by the ACS University of Missouri School of Law Student Chapter.
    The affected provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 4(b), contains the coverage formula for determining which jurisdictions are subject to a preclearance requirement before they can amend their voting laws. Section 5 details the logistics of the requirement, which was designed to target states and local governments with a history of discriminatory practices. By declaring Section 4(b) unconstitutional under the claim that the formula was based on obsolete data, the Court essentially nullified Section 5. States that were once required to have a federal court or the Department of Justice sign off on changes to voter law may now proceed unchecked.
    In an ACS National conference call – “After Shelby County: The Future of the Voting Rights Act” – Julie Fernandes, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society Foundations and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice, discussed how the legislation can combat discriminatory practices without Sections 4(b) and 5. In particular, she named Section 2 and Section 3(c) as candidates.
    Appeals to Section 2 result from policies or practices in voting areas with a discriminatory purpose or result. Sadly, explained Ms. Fernandes, these after-the-fact remedies often take a long time, are very expensive and result in complicated litigation. Violations of the Fifteenth Amendment may also be remedied by preclearance requirements set forth in Section 3(c). Yet intentional discrimination must be a predicate in these cases, she said, and courts do not often find said discrimination.
    In a post-Shelby world, Ms. Fernandes identified the need for a new, data-driven preclearance formula; the expansion of federal courts’ ability to institute preclearance requirements; and public notice and disclosure of voting law changes.
  • October 31, 2013
    Guest Post
    by Gerald Torres, Marc and Beth Goldberg Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law, Cornell Law School; Bryant Smith Chair, University of Texas Law School
    A recent Huffington Post article by Alex Palombo accuses Texas of discriminating against women in the exercise of the franchise because it has imposed new rules for voting which require all Texans to…
    “…show a photo ID with their up-to-date legal name. It sounds like such a small thing, but according to the Brennan Center for Justice, only 66 percent of voting age women have ready access to a photo document that will attest to proof of citizenship. This is largely because young women have not updated their documents with their married names, a circumstance that doesn’t affect male votes in any significant way. Suddenly 34 percent of women voters are scrambling for an acceptable ID while 99 percent of men are home free.”
    The law also imposes requirements of original documents for name change and a minimum fee of $20 to obtain acceptable copies of the documents. These requirements, in conjunction with registration deadlines, will leave many women unable to vote. Palombo views this as an assault on the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote, suggesting that “if the Tea Party gets their way, the only people left to vote will be wealthy white men.”
    Is this column another example of fear mongering from the Left? Rather than a regressive return to the days when women had no independent political existence, let alone a right to vote, Texas’ new laws surely represent the strongest possible statement supporting women’s independent personhood.  Governor Perry and his legislative confederates cannot have intended to keep women from voting or to impose new, oppressive barriers to women’s participation in the political process, right? That would be illegal.
  • October 17, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Paul M. Smith, Partner, Jenner & Block. Mr. Smith is a longtime Supreme Court practitioner and a member of the ACS Board.

    As the lawyer who argued the constitutional challenge to the Indiana Voter ID law in the Supreme Court in 2008, I was both fascinated and pleased to hear that Judge Richard Posner – the author of the Seventh Circuit majority opinion affirmed by the Supreme Court in Crawford v. Marion County Elections Board – has now publicly stated that he was wrong.  It is refreshing, if not unprecedented, for a jurist to admit error on such a major case. 

    I was a little less pleased to see that he attempted to excuse his error by blaming the parties for not providing sufficient information to the court.  As he put it in an interview quoted in the New York Times, “We weren’t given the information that would enable that balance to be struck between preventing fraud and protecting voters’ rights.”  Really?  The information provided was enough for the late Judge Terence Evans, dissenting from Judge Posner’s decision, to say quite accurately: “Let’s not beat around the bush:  The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by folks believed to skew Democratic.”

    That insight about the purpose of the law was supported by this information, all of which was provided to Judge Posner and the Seventh Circuit:

    There had never been a single known incident of in-person voter impersonation fraud in the history of Indiana and there have been precious few nationally – yet the Indiana law targeted only in-person voting.

    The law was passed immediately after Republicans took complete control of the legislature and governorship of the State of Indiana. 

    Every Republican legislator supported the law, while every Democratic legislator opposed it.

    But what about the effects of the law?  Well, Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, the primary supporter of the bill, himself stated that there are certain “groups of voters for whom compliance with [the Voter ID law] may be difficult” because they are “registered voters who do not possess photo identification; who may have difficulty understanding what the new law requires of them; or who do not have the means necessary obtain photo identification.”  As examples he mentioned “elderly voters, indigent voters, voters with disabilities, first-time voters, [and] re-enfranchised ex-felons.”  Moreover, the district court had conservatively estimated that there were 43,000 voting-age Indianans without a state-issued driver’s license or identification card, and that nearly three-quarters of them were in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis.  In other words, the persons most likely to be affected were poor and minority residents in the state’s largest city, who tended to vote Democratic and lived in a city that was trending Democratic. 

  • July 3, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Steven D. Schwinn, Associate Professor of Law, The John Marshall Law School. Schwinn is also Co-Editor, The Constitutional Law Prof Blog.

    The Supreme Court and the State of Texas wasted little time last week in revealing the full implications of the Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. Between the Court’s rulings and the State’s reactions, we will soon see fundamental changes to Texas’s election law that will almost surely have a retrogressive effect on the right to vote of racial minorities in that state.

    We all know that last week the Court in Shelby County gutted the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act by striking the coverage formula for preclearance. The ruling lifted the preclearance requirement for all previously covered jurisdictions, including Texas, and rendered preclearance dormant unless and until Congress can rewrite a coverage formula. 

    But less widely known is this: Just two days after the Court issued the Shelby County ruling, it issued orders vacating two federal court decisions denying preclearance to two proposed changes to Texas’s election law -- a new and stringent voter-ID requirement, and redistricting maps for Texas’s congressional and state legislative districts.  That same day, the Texas Attorney General announced that those proposed changes would go into effect -- that after Shelby County these changes “need not . . . go through the lengthy and costly federal preclearance process because of Tuesday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court . . . .”