A landmark federal law used to block the adoption of state voter identification cards and other election rules now faces unprecedented legal challenges. A record five federal lawsuits filed this year challenge the constitutionality of a key provision in the Voting Rights Act. The 1965 statute prevents many state and local governments from enacting new voter ID requirements, redistricting plans and similar proposals on grounds that the changes would disenfranchise minorities. The plaintiffs, which include Alabama, Florida and Texas, are aiming for the Supreme Court because some justices in a previous ruling openly questioned the continued need for parts of the Voting Rights Act. The high court recently received two of the cases on appeal and could take them up in the fall term. The three states, and two smaller communities in Alabama and North Carolina, want to regain autonomy over their elections, which are under strict federal supervision imposed by the Voting Rights Act to remedy past discrimination. The complaints ask the courts to strike down the central provision in the law, known as “pre-clearance,” which requires governments with a history of discrimination to get federal permission to change election procedures. Pre-clearance is enforced throughout nine states and in portions of seven others. Most of the jurisdictions are in the South.
The Justice Department has used the pre-clearance provision to reject several of the plaintiffs’ initiatives, including Texas’ strict voter ID law. Across the nation, legal battles are escalating over a wave of state laws passed in the past two years that impose photo ID requirements, scale back early voting periods and restrict voter-registration efforts, among other changes. The litigation has become sharply partisan because the changes could influence voter turnout in the November elections. Voter ID laws have been the most contentious, as nine of the 11 states that have passed photo ID laws have Republican governors.