The power struggle between the federal judiciary and states that want tighter controls on the voting franchise is building toward a crescendo as the presidential election looms.
In the span of a week, federal court panels struck down three key voting-related efforts in Texas and Ohio, even as South Carolina argued its case for a new voter ID law to a federal appeals panel in Washington. So far, the only ruling that has backed up mostly Republican efforts to create tougher voting rules came from a state judge in Pennsylvania, who two weeks ago ruled that the Keystone States new voter ID law should apply in November. (The Pennsylvania state Supreme Court will hear an appeal on Sept. 13.)
This week, federal judges struck down two voting-related Texas measures, including a set of redistricting maps that judges found discriminatory against Hispanics and a voter ID law, which a separate panel of judges, citing a $22 fee for a state ID, said imposed strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.
In Ohio, the state that may decide the presidential election, a judge on Friday struck down a new rule that allowed only military personnel to vote the weekend before the November election, which the court said discriminated against the poor and minorities, who historically have taken advantage of the early weekend voting to cast their ballots.
Voting rights advocates said the decisions were a body blow to Republican attempts in eight critical states to disenfranchise poor and minority voters by enacting onerous new voting rules in a ploy to goose the chances of the Romney-Ryan ticket.
Vowing to appeal the decisions to the Supreme Court ahead of the election, Republicans cite major polls suggesting that Americans, on the whole, are more concerned about protecting the legitimacy of the vote than the mere possibility of disenfranchising voters.
"This is actually a national trend, where states are trying to do a better job of securing the integrity of the ballot boxes, and yet courts (are) pushing back against that, seemingly promoting and allowing illegal voters to participate in the election process," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, saying that hundreds of deceased people were found to have voted in the states recent primary.
The battle over poll security continues to heat up, and could become even uglier as Texas and South Carolina appeal their decisions, possibly putting the Supreme Court in the position to have to make a quick ruling before the election on whether the laws should stand for the November election.
The science on voter ID laws, however, is far from settled, as officials in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas have argued. They have pointed to a Georgia voter ID law that took effect in 2005, where the immediate impact was that higher percentages of minorities voted in 2008 and 2010 than before the law was enacted. Other studies have found that minority voter participation falls off slightly immediately after new rules take effect, and then bounces back and in some cases even increases.
In Indiana, the Supreme Court in 2007 turned down a Democratic challenge to a tough voter ID law. In that case, the Supreme Court said the risk of voter fraud is real and could affect the outcome of a close election. The court went on to say, While the most effective method of preventing election fraud may well be debatable, the propriety of doing so is perfectly clear.
But in their ruling on behalf of states ability to regulate elections, the high court also noted that state judgment must prevail unless it imposes a severe and unjustified overall burden upon the right to vote, or is intended to disadvantage a particular class.
And therein, most likely, lies the root of judicial suspicion about the motives behind the new regulations, including laws passed and enacted in Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. …