by Keesha Gaskins
New America Media
With the 2012 election just a few months away, organizers and voters are working in earnest to support ballot issues, community concerns, and political campaigns.
This year there is a great deal of chaos and confusion regarding what is happening with the unprecedented wave of restrictive voting laws that has swept the nation since 2010. Understanding which laws are in effect and what it will mean for the November 2012 election is crucial.
One category of restrictive voting law that is especially important to navigate is voter ID requirements.
Since 2010, 10 states passed voter ID laws (Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin). Although each law is restrictive they are each unique. They have varying enactment dates, some are waiting for pre-clearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and others are in litigation. In addition, some voters will vote on ballot measures to decide the fate of voter ID in their state.
Kansas and Tennessee both have restrictive voter ID laws that require voters to show a photo ID currently in effect.
Pennsylvania also has a restrictive voter ID law in effect, but it is being challenged in state court with a trial date set for July 25th.
Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, voters can use a non-photo ID for the November 2012 election, but starting in November 2014, they will be required to show a photo ID at the polls. It is important to note that Rhode Island's law permits voters without the required ID to cast a provisional ballot that will be counted provided the signature matches the one in the poll book.
Not in effect and challenged
A restrictive voter ID law is also being challenged in Wisconsin, where two separate state trial courts temporarily and permanently halted the law. Those cases are ongoing and it is not known whether the Wisconsin law will be in effect in 2012. There are two additional cases in federal court, delayed by the outcome of the state law cases.
Not in effect, awaiting pre-clearance
Under the federal Voting Rights Act, changes to election laws in certain jurisdictions must be approved or "pre-cleared" by the Department of Justice or a D.C. federal court to ensure they do not violate federal law by discriminating against racial or language minorities.
Mississippi passed a restrictive voter ID law through a ballot measure last year. The state, which is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, sought pre-clearance from the Department of Justice in May – ffollowing enactment of the legislation – giving effect to the law. It is not clear if the law will be in effect in November.
Virginia passed a restrictive voter ID this year, but the state has not yet submitted the law for pre-clearance.
Finally, Alabama also passed a restrictive voter ID law, which it submitted for pre-clearance to the Justice Department. That law, however, would not be in effect until the 2014 primary election.
South Carolina and Texas passed restrictive voter ID laws in 2011, but both laws are currently tied up in court. The Justice Department rejected both state's laws because of their discriminatory effect on minority voters, and each state sued in federal court for a new determination of whether the laws should be pre-cleared. The pre-clearance trial for Texas begins July 9th, and for South Carolina on July 30th.
South Carolina submitted additional materials to the Department of Justice in April 2012. The Department has not issued a final decision on administrative pre-clearance. An affirmative decision by the Department would render the matter before the federal court moot, but if the Department upholds its initial objection issued in December 2011, the trial will proceed on schedule.
Awaiting voters approval
Minnesota voters will decide in November whether to create a voter ID requirement in the state. The Minnesota ballot measure will likely affect not only in-person voting but also the ability of Minnesotans to vote absentee, or to participate in the long-standing practice of Election-Day Registration. There is a lawsuit challenging the language of the ballot measure in state court.
With all these laws in effect or tied up in court, it is crucial that voters are informed about what they need to be able to register and vote this fall. Numerous voting rights groups, including the NAACP, have announced programs to help register voters. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos, Fair Elections Legal Network and Common Cause are working to support organizations to help voters get the proper form of voter ID.
(Keesha Gaskins serves as Senior Counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.)