In seemingly contradictory voting rights actions just a month before November’s elections, the Supreme Court has allowed new Republican-inspired restrictions to remain in force in North Carolina and Ohio while blocking Wisconsin’s voter identification law. But there is a thread of consistency: In each case, the court appears to be seeking a short-term outcome that is the least disruptive for the voting process. In Texas on Thursday, a federal district judge struck down the state’s strict voter ID requirement, likening it to a poll tax deliberately meant to suppress minority voter turnout. The Texas ruling came just hours after the US Supreme Court blocked a Wisconsin voter ID law. The twin rulings were surprising setbacks for largely Republican-backed voter identification rules that generally have been upheld in previous rulings nationwide.
Election Day is three weeks off, and Republican officials and legislators around the country are battling down to the wire to preserve strict and discriminatory new voting laws that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans. On Thursday, the Supreme Court — no friend to expansive voting rights — stepped in and blocked one of the worst laws, a Wisconsin statute requiring voters to show a photo ID to cast a ballot. A federal judge had struck it down in April, saying it would disproportionately prevent voting by poorer and minority citizens. Last month, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit allowed it to go into effect, even though thousands of absentee ballots had been sent out under the old rules. There was sure to be chaos if the justices had not stayed that appeals court ruling, and their decision appears to be based on the risk of changing voting rules so close to an election. But they could still vote to uphold the law should they decide to review its constitutionality.
Editorials: The Courts Weighed In on Restrictive Voting Laws Just in Time | Russell Berman/The Atlantic
A flurry of last-minute court decisions is upending voting rules in key states less than a month before the midterm congressional elections. The Supreme Court on Thursday night blocked a restrictive voter ID law in Wisconsin after opponents said it would cause “chaos” at the polls and noted that ballot forms had already been sent out to voters that did not make clear they needed to provide identification. The brief order by Justice Elena Kagan overturned a September decision by an appellate court, over the opposition of conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Also on Thursday night, a lower federal trial court struck down a 2011 voter ID law in Texas with a scathing opinion determining that the statute, which was designed to combat voter fraud, “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.”
John McAtee, a 52-year-old voter from Elk Grove, isn’t happy about the state of his ballot this year. In two legislative contests, the Republican will not have a candidate of his own party to choose from. For state Assembly, he can pick between Democrats Jim Cooper and Darrell Fong. For state Senate, his choices are Democrats Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan. He considers the scenario one drawback of living in a heavily Democratic area. “I am not moving, but you take your lumps,” McAtee said. A reverse scenario is playing out in a Roseville-centered congressional district, where veteran conservative Rep. Tom McClintock is challenged by fellow Republican Art Moore. More than 116,000 Democrats there have no opportunity to select one of their own. Democrat Michael Adams said he’s met Moore at district events and also has attended McClintock’s town-hall meetings. Adams, a 68-year-old resident of Roseville, said the upcoming congressional contest boils down to this: “Voting for the lesser of two evils is what I have to do.” In California, 25 same-party contests populate the fall ballot, intraparty battles made possible by voter-approved Proposition 14 in June 2010. Under the measure, the top two candidates regardless of party advance to the general election.
A Leon County circuit judge said Thursday the state is not required to pay the attorneys’ fees of voting-rights groups and individual voters who successfully challenged a 2012 congressional redistricting plan. Though Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’ decision is likely to be appealed, it would save the state from paying a tab that runs at least into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lawyers on both sides said they did not have an exact amount of the disputed fees. Attorneys for the plaintiffs, including groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, offered a somewhat-novel legal argument in seeking the fees. That argument, which has been used in other states but not Florida, is known as the “private attorney general doctrine” — essentially that private parties had to pursue a case of societal importance.
A Leon County circuit judge ruled Thursday the plaintiffs in Florida’s redistricting lawsuit can recover some of their legal costs, but not attorney’s fees. The voting-rights activists are looking to a legal concept known as the “private attorney general” to make their request. When state governments are involved in inappropriate or even corrupt activity, it can be difficult to hold them accountable. The attorney general might seem like the right office to investigate and prosecute those cases, but there’s a built-in conflict of interest because attorneys general are also the top legal advisor for the state government. Former Stetson Law School Dean Bruce Jacob says some places avoid that problem by installing a parallel office. “They have what is called the ombudsman,” Jacob says, “who is a person, a lawyer – or I guess it could be a non-lawyer – but a person who looks out for the interests of the public.”
As Montana voters head to polls this fall, they’ll decide not only on competing candidates but also on a referendum that would end the state’s policy of allowing voters to register on Election Day. The measure, Legislative Referendum 126, would amend state election law to move up the voter registration deadline to 5 p.m. Friday of the week before elections. Currently, voters can register until the close of polls the Tuesday elections are held. Advocates say the change is a common-sense way to help elections run more smoothly, and that asking people to register beforehand represents a reasonable burden. Opponents protest that it would make it harder for many Montanans to exercise their constitutional right to vote, particularly potentially marginalized groups such as seniors, young voters and American Indians. Underlying the debate is a widely held perception that Election Day registrants tend to skew liberal with their votes. Many of the measure’s proponents are prominent Republicans, and many of its opponents are Democrats or liberal advocacy groups.
The Wanblee residents argue in the lawsuit that Jackson County is discriminating against Native Americans by not opening a satellite office in their community for voter registration and absentee voting, the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/11aqVOs ) reported Sunday. Oglala Sioux Tribe vice president Thomas Poor Bear is among the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs on Friday filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier to issue a preliminary injunction ordering the county to open a satellite office in Wanblee for the time left before the election. Jackson County auditor Vicki Wilson declined to comment on the details of the lawsuit. Meanwhile, South Dakota Secretary of State Jason Gant says all of the county’s residents have the same access to voter registration and absentee voting as every South Dakotan. “We are 100 percent equal across the state,” Gant said. “Every South Dakota county has at least one location within their county borders where people can absentee vote face-to-face.”
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Saturday told the U.S. Department of Justice and other plaintiffs suing to overturn Texas’ voter identification law that they have a day to respond to an emergency motion by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. Abbott’s filing Friday with the federal appeals court — made up of mostly conservative judges — asked for expedited consideration to undo a ruling by a lower court last week that struck down the state’s voter ID law. U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi had agreed with the plaintiffs when she ruled Thursday that the Texas voter ID law, one of the strictest in the country, was unconstitutional. Ramos’ opinion didn’t include a final judgment, prompting Abbott to ask for guidance.
Advocates and opponents of Texas’ voter ID law faced off in documents Sunday over whether the now-unconstitutional requirement should be lifted as early as next week, with both sides arguing that their timeline would better prevent confusion at the polls. In a filing made public Sunday, the state of Texas wrote that declaring the law void only a week before early voting begins will seep confusion into this year’s election cycle. The state is asking for an emergency delay, or a stay, in the U.S. District Court’s order until after Nov. 4 while Greg Abbott, the attorney general and Republican nominee for governor, appeals the lower court’s ruling. The plaintiffs, who won Thursday when the district judge in Corpus Christi said the law constituted a modern-day “poll tax” and discriminated against minority voters, replied in their own filing Sunday that the courts could not allow a law deemed unconstitutional to govern an election, even if that meant changing election law at the last minute.
Republican legislators who lead the General Assembly face an unusual prospect as they redraw the state’s congressional map to comply with a court order. For the first time in nearly a quarter century, a Democratic governor must sign off on legislators’ plan to redraw congressional district boundaries. That means Gov. Terry McAuliffe could hold out for a more competitive map than the current configuration in which Republicans hold eight of the state’s 11 U.S. House seats. “The Republicans, I think, are really in a bit of a bind,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran political analyst who headed then-Gov. Bob McDonnell’s bipartisan redistricting panel in 2011. McDonnell did not push for the panel’s recommendations, which the legislature ignored. In 2012 McDonnell signed off on a plan written by General Assembly Republicans.
Just 14 hours after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin’s voter ID law for the Nov. 4 election, five appeals court judges Friday issued a blistering opinion calling allegations of voter impersonation fraud “a mere fig leaf for efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote for the political party that does not control the state government. Some of the ‘evidence’ of voter-impersonation fraud is downright goofy, if not paranoid, such as the nonexistent buses that according to the ‘True the Vote’ movement transport foreigners and reservation Indians to polling places,” wrote Judge Richard A. Posner of the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Posner, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was joined by four others in his dissenting opinion. The five other judges on the court did not spell out their views on the ID requirement. The latest ruling had no immediate practical effect, and the voter ID law remains blocked for the election.
Preliminary results suggest that Bolivians handed President Evo Morales an unprecedented third consecutive term on Sunday, and gave him a legislative majority needed to consolidate his reforms, largely on the strength of the economic and political stability his government has come to represent. A Mori exit poll released by Unitel television showed Morales, a native Aymara from Bolivia’s poor, wind-swept Andean plateau, winning 60 percent of the vote. His closest rival among four challengers, Samuel Doria Medina, had 25 percent, according a quick count of 97 percent of the voting stations by the Ipsos firm for the ATB television channel. Around six million Bolivians cast their ballots. Doria Medina conceded defeat late Sunday promising to “keep working to make a better country.”
Nationalist candidates of Bosnia’s Croats, Muslims and Serbs were ahead in the race for the country’s tripartite presidency, partial results showed early Monday. Bakir Izetbegovic, head of the main Muslim SDA party, looked set to win his second term as the Muslim member of the joint presidency. Izetbegovic, son of Bosnia’s late wartime leader Alija Izetbegovic, won 33.16 percent of the votes, according to results based on almost 77 percent of ballots counted. His main opponent, local media mogul Fahrudin Radoncic, garnered 26.67 percent, the early results from the electoral commission showed.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party was the clear winner in Sunday’s nationwide municipal elections, with its candidates winning the mayor’s post in Budapest, the capital, and in 20 of Hungary’s 23 largest cities. Speaking to supporters after preliminary results were announced, Orban vowed to “make Hungary great” in the upcoming years and boasted of winning elections for the third time this year, after victories in the national elections and for the European Parliament. The far-right Jobbik, trying to distance itself from earlier anti-Roma and racist statements, finished mostly far behind Fidesz but ahead of the left-wing opposition in most rural areas. Jobbik won in nine smaller cities, up from three in 2010.
Russian officials are throwing their support behind Ukrainian separatist rebels’ planned elections for their own parliaments after warnings from Ukrainian leaders in Kiev that no power in the world will recognize the proclaimed independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” “It is necessary to create conditions for the elections rather than to dissuade people from them,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich. He was responding to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin’s appeal Thursday for the Kremlin to dissuade its eastern Ukraine proxies from going through with the divisive vote. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko disbanded the Supreme Council in late August and set early nationwide elections for Oct. 26 so that Ukrainians could elect representatives whose political leanings reflect the dramatically changed situation in the country over the last year.