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Voter ID laws challenged in state, federal court as discriminatory

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |   Nov. 10, 2013 at 4:59 AM   |   Comments

The controversial voter identification law in Texas apparently didn't trip up many folks during last week's elections in the Lone Star state -- which doesn't count for a thing when the 2014 elections come around, one county clerk says.

The law, enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act, raised eyebrows during early voting when prominent pols initially were told they couldn't get a new voter identification card vote because they lacked proper identification: State Sen. Wendy Davis, the front-running Democratic candidate for governor next year, State Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican seeking to replace Rick Perry, and former U.S. Speaker of the House Jim Wright, a Democrat, who couldn't get his new voter ID at first because his driver's license had expired.

Even though there were few problems with the voter ID law this year, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said 2014 could be a different story, USA Today reported.

"If people say, 'See there's no problem,' I would say, 'Not yet,'" DeBeauvoir said.

Texas is one of 34 states that passed voter ID laws, although not all of them are in effect for reasons such as future dates or court challenges, the National Conference of State Legislatures said.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, states and municipalities with a history of racial discrimination must get permission from the federal government to enact changes to their voting laws, a process known as "pre-clearance." The Supreme Court's June 2013 decision ruled the pre-clearance formula used was unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment, which gives states the power to regulate elections.

The photo ID law was approved by Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature two years ago but shelved after a three-judge federal panel declared it discriminatory against minorities and the poor. After the Supreme Court decision, state officials implemented the measure. A number of lawsuits filed by Democratic lawmakers, civil rights groups and the Justice Department followed and were consolidated into one suit that will have its first hearing later in November.

Supporters said voter ID laws are necessary to ensure fair elections as free from fraud as possible. Opponents say the voter ID laws place undue burdens on the poor and minorities, and are a blatant attempt to suppress the vote from these two blocs that typically vote Democratic.

In the federal challenge to Wisconsin's voter ID law, minorities and senior citizens testified about costly and time-consuming difficulties they faced getting photo identification, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported last week.

The state has a "legitimate and important interest" in preventing voter fraud and ensuring the public believes elections are conducted fairly, State Attorney General Clayton Kawski said, to which plaintiffs' attorneys counter there's no evidence of in-person voter impersonation, the only type of fraud an ID requirement would prevent.

Those suing contend the burdens of getting an ID for some are so significant, they are tantamount to a violation of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

"This is a case about voter suppression intended to prevent people from voting," attorney John Ulin told the court.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whispered as a possible 2016 presidential candidates, said he believes the law he signed in 2011 would be found constitutional and people can easily get free IDs from the state.

"There really is no barrier for people," he said during a Milwaukee news conference. "Particularly in a society where people need photo identification for just about everything else."

And in North Carolina, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against North Carolina's new voter ID law, charging the law violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by discriminating against minorities. This action comes just more than a month after the department took similar action against a voter photo ID law in Texas.

North Carolina's law, considered by observers the most restrictive voting measure passed since the civil rights era, imposes a strict voter photo ID requirement, eliminates same-day registration, shortens the early voting period by a week, eliminates pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and purges the voter rolls more often. The DOJ lawsuit also seeks to force North Carolina to obtain federal pre-clearance.

In Minnesota -- where voters in 2012 rejected a voter ID amendment -- a group of Republicans and two special interest groups sued Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, charging he overstepped his authority in creating an online voter registration system. Since September, more than 2,000 Minnesotans have submitted voter registration applications.

Dan McGrath, president of Minnesota Majority and who says the plaintiffs don't necessarily object to online voter registration just the way it came about without legislative action, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the lawsuit won't immediately affect anyone who used the system to register -- about 2,000 -- for last week's local elections.

But, he said, it could be used to challenge results of those elections, particularly in close races. If a court found Ritchie lacked the authority to start the website, the group could ask for disqualification of votes cast by those who registered online.

"The voters themselves will likely see no effect, but the elections could be challenged because unauthorized voters cast ballots when they weren't legally registered." McGrath said.

Ritchie has said he was authorized to create the system because of a 2000 law that requires the state to accept electronic signatures, just as it does those on paper.

In an ironic turn, Pennsylvania taxpayers spent $6 million in advertising for a voter ID law that Pennsylvanians could ignore for the fourth consecutive election last week Tuesday -- and one that may not survive a legal challenge, TribLive.com.

Last year, the state spent $5 million in federal subsidies tagged for voter education to run television and radio ads to promote the voter ID law before the presidential election. This year, the state updated the ads to reflect the status of the law that was stayed while its fate is decided by a state judge.

Even if the law is not in effect, the state is responsible for educating people about ID requirements, said Ron Ruman, spokesman for Pennsylvania's State Department.

"We're doing education according to the law," Ruman said, "and the law is you're going to be asked, but not required."

Voter rights advocates warn Mississippi lawmakers who are considering voter ID legislation to watch what's happening in the courts.

"The battle in North Carolina, Texas, they're not just state fights," William Barber, North Carolina NAACP president, told HattiesburgAmerican.com. "They are state battles that have national implications. If you don't stop it here, it has the potential like a virus to spread across the country."

Edward Hailes, general counsel with the Advancement Project, told HattiesburgAmerican.com the national group would work with the Mississippi NAACP and others if there's a challenge to the state's law.

"North Carolina is ground zero for us, but other states are responding to the Shelby County decision by promulgating new laws, so we're going to have to look at all of them depending on the resources we have," he said.

The Supreme Court left intact Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act -- the portion that describes how pre-clearance works. The Court struck down Section 4, which explains which states and localities are subject to pre-clearance.

If Congress amends Section 4, the Justice Department can start enforcing Section 5 again, Pro Publica reported.

Pro Publica also reported most court cases involving the act's Section 2 -- which outlaws voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, among other things -- have been limited to redistricting, not other controversial voting measures.

"With redistricting, there's always one very wealthy political party or another who can hire some very good lawyers and go into court and challenge it," Yale University law professor Heather Gerken said. "But a lot of the types of things that were challenged under Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act] were smaller questions, like, 'Can you change a polling place? Can you shut down early voting hours in ways that might affect the black community?' There are things smaller than redistricting that can fall through the cracks."

Gerken said she wasn't optimistic that Congress will come up with a new pre-clearance formula but said there were other actions Congress could take, such as an "opt-in" approach and allowing civil rights groups to file simple complaints for the Justice Department to investigate.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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