States Eye Voting Obstacles in Wake of High-Court Ruling

Less than a week after the Supreme Court watered down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a handful of states seemed poised to roll back the protections afforded to minorities by the 48-year-old law

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NAACP field director Charles White speaks outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington on June 25, 2013

Correction appended at 10:25 a.m.

Less than a week after the Supreme Court watered down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a handful of states seemed poised to roll back the protections afforded to minorities by the 48-year-old law.

Two hours after the decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that a 2011 voter-ID law that federal courts found disproportionately burdened poor and minority voters would go into effect “immediately.” New redistricting maps, Abbott says, could swiftly follow.

Since the high court’s ruling on June 25, four of the other 15 states covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia — are in position to move forward on tightening voting laws.

In Alabama and Mississippi, voters will have to present a photo-identification card at the 2014 primary polls under laws that are now being implemented, but were previously being held until cleared by Washington officials. Both states plan to issue photo IDs to voters who don’t have them.

(MORE: High Court Rolls Back the Voting Rights Act of 1965)

Meanwhile, a stricter voter-ID bill passed by Virginia state legislature in March will go into effect in July 2014. That measure made driver’s licenses, voter-ID cards, student IDs and gun permits the only acceptable forms of voting identification.

And in North Carolina, lawmakers plan to overhaul existing voting laws as early as next week that will make photo identification a voting requirement, as well as cancel both Sunday and early voting.

But the speediest action seems certain to come in Texas.

In May 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a law that required voters to present photo IDs at polling places, although, under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Texas had to submit all new voting laws to the Department of Justice before they could go into affect.

The Department of Justice rejected the Texas-voter photo-ID law, finding it discriminatory. So the state was forced to appeal in federal court. In 2012, a federal court also rejected the law on the grounds that the ID requirement would have a disproportionate impact on the working poor.

Texas then appealed to the Supreme Court.

In last week’s ruling, it threw out the lower court’s decision, giving Texas the opportunity to carry out the strict law, which requires voters to present a driver’s license, handgun license, military ID, a passport or a state-issued “election identification certificate.”

Voter-ID laws have been stirring emotions on both sides of the political debate for years; 180 more restrictive bills have been introduced since 2011, including voter-ID laws in 30 states. Ten states have photo-ID laws.

(MORE: Viewpoint: Voting-Rights Decision Spells the End of Fair Elections)

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 21 million U.S. citizens, including a quarter of all African Americans, 18% of Americans over 65 and 16% of Hispanics do not have a government-issued photo ID.

In North Carolina, where early voting seems headed to the chopping block, 27.4% of all early voters were African American in the past election, according to the United States Elections Project at George Mason University.

The impact of the court ruling, says Spencer Overton, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, is much greater than just statewide changes in election laws.

Where the court’s decision may be felt most is not at the state level but in little-noticed local and county-level races, which attract much less attention and often require fewer officials’ involvement.

For example, in 2001, the mayor and all-white Board of Alderman in tiny Kilmichael, Miss. — a town with a population of 830 people in 2000, according to the Census — canceled the election because of the high number of black candidates running. The Department of Justice required the election to take place.

A June Yale Law Review article reported that over 85% of Section 5 objections to changes in voting laws came from jurisdictions below the state level between 1982 and 2006. Those included city-council and school-board races. In that time, the Department of Justice blocked over 700 voting-rule changes.

“The real issue will be these local-level changes that escape national attention but have a real impact,” Overton says.

MORE: Is This the End for the Core of the Voting Rights Act?

Correction: This article previously stated that Virginia’s voter ID law likely goes into effect this year. It goes into effect July 2014.