After a notable string of voting rights decisions in the past few weeks — throwing out or weakening voter identification and other restrictive voting laws in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and elsewhere — you might think that the rules are settled for November. But the rules are far from settled. Things are very much in flux, and the possibility of disenfranchisement through confusion or reversals of recent gains remains. Indeed, just Wednesday an appeals court put on hold a softening of Wisconsin’s voter ID law imposed a few weeks ago by a trial court. To recap, since the disputed 2000 presidential election, which convinced the Democratic and Republican parties that the rules of the game really matter, there’s been an uptick in the amount of legislation governing voting rules, such as the length of the early voting period, and the amount of litigation around those rules. Litigation rates have more than doubled in the post-2000 period. Mostly Republican legislatures passed laws making it harder to register and vote, citing the need to prevent voter fraud and instill voter confidence, even though there is little evidence of fraud or that the laws help instill voter confidence in the fairness of elections.
Texas gave up fighting and agreed to a set of rules for voters who lack one of the forms of identification required by the law. These voters can vote using an affidavit and other proof of identity, such as a utility bill. But the question in Texas is that voters who lack the ID but want to vote won’t get the message about how they can vote. The agreement requires Texas to spend at least $2.5 million educating voters about the requirement, which may or may not be enough. The track record on softening harsh voter ID rules shows this may work better in theory than practice.
In North Carolina, the state has resisted the Fourth Circuit’s order and is planning on filing an emergency motion in the Supreme Court so that it can put its voting restrictions back in place for November. This creates uncertainty for election officials planning for the upcoming election. Meantime, the 4th Circuit’s ruling restored earlier voting rules, which gave discretion to local partisan election boards to set the rules for early voting.