While the political world’s attention was focused on the homage to Leni Riefenstahl’s greatest hits playing out in Cleveland, the voting laws passed out in the states by many of the Republicans in attendance were quietly having a very bad week.
On Tuesday, a federal district court judge in Wisconsin dealt a blow to the state’s voter ID law. While the judge, Lynn Adelman, left the law in place, he ordered the state to implement a procedure that would allow voters without photo IDs to vote provided they also submit an affidavit stating that they could not obtain an ID despite making a good-faith effort. Since the law primarily disenfranchised the poor and elderly who did not have easy access to the documents needed to apply for photo IDs, and those constituencies primarily vote Democratic, this decision could help the party not just win the presidency but also pick up a Senate seat in November.
The voter ID law was one of the most visible laws signed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker after his election in 2010, one of which he was very proud. So it might have pained him to not include it among the gubernatorial accomplishments he listed during his speech to the RNC on Wednesday night. Bonus!
On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Texas’s voter ID law. As Ian Milhiser explained, this was a surprise for two reasons. First, the Fifth Circuit is one of the more conservative circuit courts in the nation. Second, the case was decided en banc, meaning it was heard by all of the court’s 15 justices, not just the usual randomly assigned three-judge panel.
It was not a total victory for voting rights advocates, since the majority in the case split on whether Texas’s legislature held “discriminatory intent” when it passed the law. Which means that the state’s voting laws won’t necessarily have to be placed under federal supervision, as called for in Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act. The court also did not order a particular remedy for the discrimination it found, instead ordering the district courts to find one. It is unclear whether that can be accomplished by November.
Still, since the Texas law is one of the country’s most restrictive, and likely affects more voters than any other in the conservative state, this is a solid victory for voting rights advocates.
Then on Thursday, a federal district judge in Michigan blocked that state’s new law banning straight-party voting on ballots. This is a practice whereby a voter chooses all the candidates from a party with a single check mark, instead of going through the ballot and voting for individuals. The judge found that the law would disproportionately harm African-American voters, who tend to vote Democratic and take advantage of straight-party voting more often, by slowing down voting at the polls.
The law was passed last January by Michigan’s GOP-controlled legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who said it was time for voters to “choose people over politics.” Which, given his current approval rating in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, might be a stance he’ll come to regret if he runs for re-election.
Three days, three voting laws that upended long-standing practices (single-party voting had been in place in Michigan for over 100 years) passed by Republican-controlled legislatures and signed by high-profile Republican governors shot down by the courts. A lot of political norms have disappeared into the ether over the last couple of decades, but at least checks-and-balances still works sometimes. At least until El Presidente Trump comes to power.
Jokes aside, this run of judicial decisions should also be an important motivator for Democrats to turn out to vote in November’s election. What the Wisconsin and Texas laws had in common is that they were found to violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Either case could get appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which already struck down Section 4 of the VRA and effectively hamstrung Section 5 in its 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder. Since Chief Justice John Roberts has made overturning the VRA a goal of his 30-plus-years career going back to his time working in the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan, it’s reasonable to assume he would like another bite at that apple.
Now imagine one of these laws goes before a SCOTUS – the Texas law is the better bet, since it was just ruled on by a circuit court – that has recently seated a conservative judge appointed by Donald Trump.
Granted, a lot would have to happen before we get to that point. But assuming that the Senate never gets around to confirming Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia, the next president will get to appoint a SCOTUS justice her first months in office. It is important that that president be a Democrat. Among other rights that will be at stake, the right to vote is one of the most elemental, and Republicans cannot be allowed to continue chipping away at it.