One could be forgiven for being confused about where things stand with voter ID laws in this fall’s midterm elections. A slew of federal-court orders, some of them still unresolved, have altered voting practices and procedures in a number of states, just weeks before voters go to the polls. Already, election officials and candidates have vowed to make a special effort to educate voters about what exactly awaits them on November 4. But there is a larger concern that has received much less attention: whether state election authorities can prevent confusion among poll workers themselves—the people who have the de-facto last word in determining whether you are eligible to vote. Consider the conflicting rulings that have been issued in the last few days alone. On Monday, a federal appeals court reversed a decision by a district court and put Wisconsin’s stringent voter-ID requirement back into effect—a ruling that would require voters to show state-approved identification when they vote in November. But on Thursday, the Supreme Court put the Wisconsin law on hold again. Meanwhile, in Texas, it remains unclear whether a law requiring photo identification will apply, following a decision by a federal judge, also on Thursday, that is now being appealed by the Texas state attorney general. Nor are these isolated cases. In the past two weeks, the Supreme Court has overturned lower court decisions effecting voting practices in Ohio and North Carolina. In late September, a federal court in Alaska required state election officials to provide bilingual voting materials to Native-American voters. The Kansas Supreme Court, also in late September, ordered the Kansas Secretary of State to remove the Democratic nominee for Senate from the ballot. Litigants in Arkansas await decisions on the state’s contested voter-ID laws.
However these laws play out in court, most crucial will be the rules that poll workers themselves are prepared to apply on election day. Past elections have shown that poll workers can become especially confused by controversial criteria such as whether a voter must present identification. All too often, poorly-trained poll workers don’t follow their state’s voter-ID rules, demanding identification when none is required, failing to request an identification when the law requires them to do so, accepting an impermissible form of identification, or rejecting a state-approved form of identification. These issues become all the more concerning when there are last minute changes to the law. In Wisconsin, for example, if the Supreme Court had not stayed this week’s ruling, the voting rules on election day would have been different than those in effect in the August primary. In fact, there would have been two different sets of rules for Wisconsin ballots next month. As Justice Samuel Alito conceded in his dissent to the Court’s order on the Wisconsin law, state election officials had already mailed absentee ballots without asking for proof of photo identification, as the new law required.