It seemed a clear victory for voting rights advocates in July when a federal court invalidated much of Wisconsin’s restrictive elections law, concluding that it discriminated against minorities by requiring voters to produce photo identification cards that blacks and Latinos too often lack. The remedy was straightforward: Henceforth, the state was to “promptly issue a credential valid as a voting ID to any person” who applied for one. But this month when Treasure Collins visited one of the Wisconsin motor vehicle offices that issue IDs, she found something entirely different. “I brought everything my mom told me I would need: my school ID, a copy of my birth certificate, my Social Security number,” said Ms. Collins, 18. “But they told me I needed an original copy of my birth certificate. An original copy, all the way from Illinois.” While Donald J. Trump repeatedly claims that the election is “rigged” against him, voting rights groups are increasingly battling something more concrete in this year’s ferocious wars over access to the ballot box: Despite a string of court victories against restrictive voting laws passed by Republican legislatures, even when voting rights groups win in court, they are at risk of losing on the ground. In an election year when turnout could be crucial, a host of factors — foot-dragging by states, confusion among voters, the inability of judges to completely roll back bias — are blunting the effect of court rulings against the laws.
And this month in North Carolina, plaintiffs complained to a judge that early-voting plans in five populous counties, including Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County, embraced some of the discriminatory practices that federal courts had outlawed this summer. That came after two senior Republican Party officials advised local elections boards in emails to choose polling places and voting hours that inconvenience minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies.
To Barry Burden, who directs the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, such episodes mirror a growing, worrisome use of election rules as tools to win elections, not run them fairly. “When competition filters into making the rules themselves, it’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.