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Eric Davis: Supreme Court voting rights ruling looms

Election turnout rates in Vermont are consistently among the highest in the nation. This is due both to the presence of a strong culture of civic participation in Vermont, and to state laws and regulations that facilitate voter participation.
Vermonters may register to vote not only in advance, but also on election day itself. There is extensive collaboration between the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Secretary of State’s office to update registration rolls with new residents and those who change addresses. Any voter may cast a ballot during the 45 days before an election. Voter fraud is nearly non-existent in Vermont.
Election administration is an area in which states have considerable discretion. Not all states follow Vermont’s approach of encouraging voter turnout. Some states, most of them with Republican governors and legislatures, have deliberately altered election laws to suppress voter participation.
In these states, registration deadlines are set far in advance of election day, registration locations are few and have limited hours, early voting periods are short, and photo ID requirements are enforced at polling places. Measures such as these disproportionately reduce turnout among lower-income and minority voters, who often tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
Many of these restrictions on voting have been challenged in federal courts, with rulings on both sides of the issue. For example, North Carolina’s restrictions on early voting were struck down, while Wisconsin’s photo ID requirements were allowed to remain in place. Federal courts around the country have not developed common standards for judging election law changes that are alleged to suppress turnout.
The Supreme Court may set forth national standards before the 2020 election, perhaps in a case from Texas that is now working its way through the federal judicial system. In 2011, the Republican-majority Texas legislature passed a law requiring voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. There are no DMV offices in 27 of Texas’ 254 counties, so some voters may have to travel up to 100 miles to get a government-issued photo ID.
Because of a series of federal court challenges, this law has never gone into full effect. Voters who do not have one of the required IDs may sign an affidavit affirming their identity at the polling place and then present an alternative document.
Up until the end of 2016, the Obama Administration’s Justice Department supported the challengers of the Texas voter ID law through filing briefs and other legal interventions. In the 2012, 2014 and 2016 election cycles, the Justice Department was among the most active litigants in voter suppression cases all across the country.
This all changed once President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions took office. As a member of the U.S. Senate, and as attorney general of Alabama earlier in his career, Sessions has consistently been a strong opponent of federal voting rights laws and enforcement. In February of this year, the Justice Department filed papers in the Texas case supporting the voter ID law and asking the federal courts to delay further action against it.
Last week, a federal district judge in Texas once again ruled against the voter ID law, holding that it was enacted for the purpose of discriminating against African-American and Latino voters in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and that Texas did not demonstrate a plausible non-racial motive for passing the law.
Texas will appeal this decision, with the support of the Trump Administration. A Supreme Court ruling on the Texas voter ID law will likely be issued within the next few years, prior to the 2020 election. This ruling, and its consequences in 2020, could turn out to be one of the most important decisions in the Court’s recent history.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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