Commentary: How voting rights’ victories could change the presidential race

U.S. courts have finally struck back against Republican efforts to restrict voting rights. A series of recent key decisions involving Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and North Dakota aimed at excluding minority voters.

The rulings roll back , that made it harder for African-American, Latino and American Indian voters — who skew overwhelmingly Democratic — to cast ballots. The laws imposed strict photo ID requirements, cut back on early voting and created new registration hurdles.

The federal appellate court rulings in North Carolina and Texas rebut these restrictive laws, signaling that courts will be less accepting of such deterrence in future.   

Both courts rejected the contention that the photo ID laws protected against vote fraud. This may have finally run its course. There is that substantial in-person vote fraud — the only kind that a photo ID law could prevent — occurs in U.S. elections. 

In addition, last Friday, a . Then, on Monday, a blocked the state’s strict photo ID law because of its effect on Native Americans.

Republican efforts to impose new voting restrictions appeared headed for unprecedented success after the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder. But now the federal courts of appeal have used remnants of the 1965 act to rein in measures that would suppress the minority vote in Texas and North Carolina.   

Both decisions should survive, making the 2016 presidential election fairer for America’s increasingly diverse electorate. They should also help in fighting the voting challenges to come. Most important, each decision makes plain to Congress that voting discrimination persists in the United States and that the Voting Rights Act should be restored to its full strength.

The rulings , which invalidated the Voting Rights Act’s methods of identifying states and localities that required federal oversight. Federal oversight meant that these jurisdictions had to prove proposed election changes were not discriminatory to gain approval for their implementation from the U.S. attorney general or a District of Columbia court.    

Congress had renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006 by a unanimous vote in the Senate and an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives. But in an act of breathtaking judicial hubris, Chief Justice John Roberts, with the court’s four other Republican appointees, ruled that federal oversight was no longer needed.   

The North Carolina decision could affect the presidential election results. in part because African-American voters are an emerging Democratic force against the state’s Republican establishment. 

The Fourth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over North Carolina, ruled that this growing black vote was one reason the GOP-controlled state legislature passed restrictive voting laws soon after the Shelby County decision.

Before that ruling, 40 North Carolina counties had been subject to federal oversight. The new bill, quickly signed by the Republican governor, rolled many restrictions into one comprehensive piece of legislation that promised to impede African-American turnout.  

The appellate court concluded the specific restrictions were not selected by accident. State legislators had requested information on the racial impact of various voting restrictions and inserted into the bill — with “surgical precision, according to the court – those that would disproportionately hinder African- American voters.

In addition to a restrictive photo ID requirement (accepting only those least likely to be possessed by African Americans), for example, the bill cut back early voting — even eliminating one Sunday, a day African American churches traditionally organize “souls to the polls” voting. It also ended same-day registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and out-of-precinct voting.

The court rejected the state’s assertion that the bill was intended to help Republicans rather than discriminate against African-Americans. The judges cited the inextricable link between politics and race in North Carolina, where voting remains racially polarized and party affiliations often correspond with race.

The North Carolina ruling is particularly devastating because a federal court declared the lawmakers intended to discriminate on the basis of race. Courts are generally reluctant to ascribe intentional discrimination to legislative bodies. The facts here are compelling, however, and the court did not back away from them. 

The Texas ruling was . Before Shelby, Texas passed a law requiring voters to present one of a restrictive list of photo IDs, arguing it was necessary to prevent vote fraud. A three-judge D.C. court blocked its implementation because it disproportionately burdened minority voters. 

Shelby, however, released Texas from federal oversight. The day of the decision, Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott announced the photo ID requirement was being put into effect. The U.S. Justice Department, among others, immediately filed suit. Plaintiffs produced overwhelming evidence that black and Latino citizens were less likely to possess the required documents.

The full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled two weeks ago, by a vote of 9-6, that the law violated the Voting Rights Act. Four Republican appointees broke ranks to join five Democratic appointees to strike it down. The district court is following the appellate court’s orders to soften the law’s discriminatory effect before the November election.

With these rulings, the bubble may have burst on the vote-fraud justification for photo ID laws. Time and again, allegations of voter fraud have not survived investigation. This is not surprising because people are unlikely to risk a felony conviction in order to cast a single vote. It is also an ineffective way to influence an election. 

Until now, justices often voted along partisan lines when reviewing voting restrictions. Republicans usually supported the laws, Democrats opposed them. That four GOP-appointed judges voted against the Texas law signals how weak the justification for countering voter fraud now appears — and how profound the effect can be on minority voting.

These rulings are major victories for civil rights advocates. They suggest the courts may be more willing to recognize that the past decade of Republican election reforms involved the cynical creation of draconian remedies for largely nonexistent voter fraud. 

Though these cases are triumphs for minority voters, they also drive home the inadequacy of current legal tools. While voting advocates engaged in years of expensive litigation, elections were held and votes were lost. The genius of the Voting Rights Act’s federal oversight requirement was that discriminatory changes simply could not go into effect.

If these cases had been decided before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, both Texas and North Carolina would likely have sought emergency relief from the Supreme Court. Since Scalia’s death, however, and unable to act. 

For the foreseeable future, victories by voting rights advocates should be secure.

About the Author

William Yeomans served as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department and chief counsel for Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is a fellow in law and government at American University Washington College of Law.

The views expressed in this article are not those of News.