The tide may just be turning on voting rights, just in time for the November election that is one of the most consequential in decades.
On Friday, federal judges overturned restrictive, discriminatory voting laws in both North Carolina and Wisconsin. That followed closely a ruling throwing out an unfair law in Texas. Then Monday, a federal judge in North Dakota blocked that state’s voter identification law after it was challenged by a group of American Indians.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland in Bismarck, N.D., issued a temporary restraining order Monday. He advised that the state could easily fix the problem by letting voters file affidavits or declarations if they don’t have a valid ID. North Dakota is the only state in the nation without voter registration; it was abolished in 1951
All these laws were passed by Republican-controlled legislatures and signed by Republican governors. They claimed it was about preventing voter fraud and not about partisan advantage. Of course.
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But now even Republican judges are seeing through those phantom arguments – and seeing the threat to our democracy.
On July 20, the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative in the country, ruled that the strict voter identification law in Texas discriminates against poor and minority voters. It ordered the state to come up with a fix in time for November.
On Friday, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals – no liberal bastion, either – found that the N.C. law targeted African-American voters with “almost surgical precision.” Under the ruling, North Carolina won’t be able to require photo IDs for the November election. It also restores a week of early voting and keeps same-day registration.
Also Friday, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional several parts of the Wisconsin voter ID law and ordered the state to issue credentials needed to vote. He also struck down a provision that limited cities to only one place for in-person absentee voting.
The assault on voting rights gained momentum in 2013, after the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the hard-won achievements of the civil rights movement. The 5-4 ruling undermined Section 5 of the law, which required officials in all or part of 15 states – including North Carolina and Texas – to get U.S. Justice Department approval in advance for any election changes.
That pre-clearance requirement stopped a lot of partisan mischief and protected the rights of minority voters in 2012 in Florida, South Carolina and Texas.
Indeed, the state is trying to make voting easier, moving toward same-day voter registration, streamlining the process to sign up at DMV and pre-registering 16- and 17-year-olds. Secretary of State Alex Padilla sent out a statement Friday praising the court rulings, and also put in a plug for a bill to expand early voting.
No matter who you support in this divisive campaign, we should all agree that every eligible voter should have a fair chance to have their voice heard.