by: Niyati Shah and Archita Taylor, Election Counsels at Project Vote
As many have already noted, this year will be the first presidential election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In the absence of some of the VRA’s key provisions, particularly Section 5, voting rights advocates have engaged in lengthy lawsuits across the country to contest some of the most egregious offenders of federal election laws and the Constitution.
Last week alone, courts struck at the heart of state laws diluting the franchise in three different states – North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. All three required a photo ID before casting a ballot. In each case, these laws were challenged under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, and Section 2 of the VRA. The Supreme Court requires that “[p]roof of racially discriminatory intent or purpose is required to show a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.” Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 265 (1977). Violations of Section 2 of the VRA can be established without showing discriminatory intent so long as plaintiffs show that the law has a discriminatory effect. Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 62 (1986).
In the Texas case, while the Fifth Circuit found the Texas law had discriminatory impact, it nonetheless remanded to the lower court for a reevaluation of whether the law had discriminatory intent based on new criteria (the lower court had already found discriminatory intent after trial). Similarly, in Wisconsin, the district court initially held that the law violated both the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the VRA, but the Seventh Circuit reversed. Last week, on remand, the district court held that the state must allow voters who cannot obtain appropriate photo ID through reasonable efforts to cast a ballot with an affidavit. But in North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit however went much further, finding that the state legislature intended to discriminate against African American voters in violation of both the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 2 of the VRA.