While voting rights battles rage on in states like Kansas, Arizona, Ohio, and Texas, voters enjoyed a recent string of victories in states across the country. In the past week, three courts halted restrictive photo ID bills and two state legislatures passed measures to make voter registration more accessible. Here are the details:
- Arkansas kicked off a series of photo ID defeats. Last Thursday, a state circuit judge declared Arkansas’ photo ID law “void and unenforceable,” finding it imposed an additional voter qualification beyond what is required by the state constitution. Interestingly, the lawsuit had focused on the law’s absentee ballot rules, but Judge Tim Fox determined the entire act was unconstitutional. On Tuesday, however, the Arkansas Supreme Court temporarily stayed the decision and granted an expedited appeal. Briefs are due before the court today.
- On Monday, a Pennsylvania state court judge declined to reconsider his January decision striking down the state’s photo ID law. “[T]he evidence showed the photo ID provisions at issue deprive numerous electors of their fundamental right to vote, so vital to our democracy,” wrote Judge Bernard McGinley, reiterating his belief that the law would discriminate against certain voting populations. The governor has 30 days to decide whether to appeal, in which case the suit would head to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
- The following day, a federal judge ruled Wisconsin’s photo ID law unconstitutionally burdened the right to vote, and, for the first time, found that a state photo ID law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Judge Lynn Adelman’s opinion concluded the scant evidence of voter fraud did not justify the potential disenfranchisement of up to 300,000 Wisconsin voters — a substantial number of whom are low income. The decision could have significant implications for cases in Texas and North Carolina, where similar lawsuits are currently pending. The state attorney general indicated he will appeal.
- Legislatures also took steps to make voting more accessible. Hawaii passed a same-day registration bill this week, which will allow residents to register and vote at early voting locations by 2016, and at all election day polling places by 2018. As the state with the lowest turnout nationwide — a mere 44.5 percent showed up to vote in 2012 — Hawaii took an important step in eliminating arbitrary registration deadlines and reducing the barriers to voter participation. The bill now advances to Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), who is expected to sign it.
- Earlier this week in Minnesota, a judge ordered Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to shut down the online registration system he created last year, finding it was outside his authority to implement. But by Tuesday evening, the legislature passed a bipartisan bill authorizing online registration, which the governor signed within hours. These fast expeditious actions meant Minnesota voters’ access to online system went uninterrupted.
The voting rights triumphs over the past week are cause for celebration. Granted, it remains to be seen whether the court rulings will ultimately stand — the Arkansas decision has already been stayed and appeals may be forthcoming in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But the willingness of the courts to strike down restrictive legislation, and a recognition among state legislators that there is a need for convenient, 21st century registration processes, is an encouraging sign for the future of the right to vote.