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“Another Long And Ignoble Tradition”: Why The Supreme Court Is Allowing Texas To Hold An Unconstitutional Election

This weekend, the Supreme Court allowed Texas to apply new, stringent voting restrictions to the upcoming midterm elections, which could potentially disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters lacking proper identification. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained in a short but brilliant dissent, this is a disaster for the citizens of Texas: the upcoming elections will be conducted under a statute that is unconstitutional on multiple levels.

How could this happen?

There is, admittedly, a quasi-defensible reason for the court’s latest move. The Supreme Court is usually reluctant to issue opinions that would change election rules when a vote is imminent. For example, the court recently acted to prevent Wisconsin from using its new voter ID law in the upcoming midterms, coming to the opposite result from the Texas case. That is the principle at work here, and on a superficial level it makes sense.

But as Ginsburg — joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — points out, the general reluctance to change election rules at the last minute is not absolute. In Wisconsin, using the new law would have created chaos. For example, absentee ballots would not have indicated that identification was necessary for a vote to count, so many Wisconsin voters would have unknowingly sent in illegal ballots.

In the Texas case, conversely, there is little reason to believe that restoring the rules that prevailed before the legislature’s Senate Bill 14 would have been disruptive. “In all likelihood,” the dissent observes, “Texas’ poll workers are at least as familiar with Texas’ pre-Senate Bill 14 procedures as they are with the new law’s requirements.”

And more importantly, some risk of disruption is a price worth paying to prevent an election from being conducted under unconstitutional rules. The Texas statute, which is extreme even by the standards of contemporary Republican vote-suppression efforts, is not remotely constitutional.

The Texas law has all the defects of every law that requires photo ID to vote. You don’t have to take my word for it — you can read the recent tour de force opinion of the idiosyncratic, immensely influential Judge Richard Posner of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. Posner initially wrote an important opinion upholding an Indiana voter ID law, which was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. But last week, he concluded based on new evidence that the laws are “a mere fig leaf for efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote for the political party that does not control the state government.”

The fundamental problem with the ID requirements is that they are a bad solution to a non-existent problem. Not only is voter impersonation exceedingly rare, even in theory it would be impossible to steal an election by having large numbers of people pretend they are other voters. Election thefts are accomplished by manipulating vote counts or manufacturing fake votes after the fact, not by having an army of impostors cast votes!

The costs in vote suppression, however, are real, and since voter ID laws don’t accomplish anything, even miniscule costs cannot be worth it.

But the Texas law is much worse than typical voter ID laws. As the Ginsburg dissent explains, “[I]t was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and would yield a prohibited discriminatory result,” and hence violates the Voting Rights Act (and, presumably, the Fourteenth Amendment). All voter ID laws are discriminatory in effect, but Texas public officials made little effort to hide the extent to which the laws were intended to suppress the minority vote to protect Republican incumbents from demographic change. Indeed, the only reason the law was able to go into effect in the first place was the Supreme Court’s notoriously shoddy 2013 opinion gutting the Voting Rights Act.

In and of itself, this should be enough to prevent the law from going into effect. But the legal deficiencies of Texas’ election law do not end there. None of the forms of ID required by the statute are available for free. As the dissenters note, the costs are not necessarily trivial: “A voter whose birth certificate lists her maiden name or misstates her date of birth,” Ginsburg explains, “may be charged $37 for the amended certificate she needs to obtain a qualifying ID.”

Texas is simply not constitutionally permitted to do this. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment forbids poll taxes, and the Supreme Court held in 1966 that “a State violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard.”

The fact that Texas’ law is unconstitutional twice over — both by being racially discriminatory and imposing a direct cost on voting — is not a coincidence. Even after racial discrimination in voting was made illegal by the Fifteenth Amendment, for nearly a century states were able to use formally race-neutral measures like poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise minority voters. The Texas law is very much part of this long and ignoble tradition.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decisions in 2013 and 2014 allowing the Texas law to go into effect are part of another long and ignoble tradition: the Supreme Court collaborating with state governments to suppress the vote rather than protecting minorities against discrimination. As long as Republican nominees control the Supreme Court, this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

 

By: Scott Lemieux, Professor of Political Science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y; The Week, October 20, 2014

October 21, 2014 Posted by | Texas, U. S. Supreme Court, Voter ID | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Depressing And Infuriating”: Voter ID Laws Make The Poll Tax Look Good

The poll tax is looking pretty tempting in the rear-view mirror. It was $1.50 in 1964, when the 24th Amendment outlawed it as a requirement for voting in federal elections. Adjusted for inflation, the tax would be less than $12 today. That makes it a lot cheaper — and infinitely easier — than getting hold of exactly the right documentation to cast a ballot under some state laws.

The recent wave of rulings and opinions on voter ID laws makes for depressing, at times infuriating, reading. There is the parade of “practical obstacles” summarized by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, writing on the Wisconsin law. Trying to learn what you need, collecting the documents, getting to and standing on line at one or more state offices that are open only during business hours, and perhaps having to deal with multiple other state and federal agencies to address discrepancies — just skimming the list will make your stomach clench and your head ache. It’s a major undertaking for a high-income, highly educated person with flexible work hours and access to public officials. It’s prohibitive in multiple ways for others.

There are the calculated choices majority Republicans made in Texas about what kinds of ID to accept and reject. They said yes to gun permits and military IDs and didn’t mess with absentee ballots — all ways to “broaden Anglo voting,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote. They rejected student IDs, state government employee IDs and federal IDs, all “disproportionately held by African-Americans and Hispanics.”

There is the barrier of cost, addressed in an opinion on the Wisconsin law by Judge Richard Posner, a conservative named by Ronald Reagan to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He cited a Harvard Law School report that found the cost of documentation, travel and waiting time to get an ID to be $75 to $175. That’s 50 to 100 times more than that $1.50 poll tax, and all you’d have to do is pay at the polling station before voting.

The poll tax, in many cases applied selectively and used to discriminate, had no place in a democracy. Yet how different was it from the hurdles placed in the path of so many voters today?

These burdens, and possibly even the outcome of a close race or two, hang in the balance as the courts whipsaw back and forth in the weeks before the Nov. 4 election. Ramos blocked the Texas law last week, she was reversed by a three-judge appeals panel this week, and the next day the Supreme Court was asked to again block the law from taking effect. The Wisconsin law went through a similar judicial rollercoaster before the Supreme Court last week said it could not go forward this year.

Posner’s dissent in the Wisconsin case is memorable for personal asides that inject bracing reminders of the real world, and an overall scathing tone. His 11-page appendix, for instance, is called “Scrounging for your birth certificate in Wisconsin.” All 11 pages are required forms and instructions on how to fill them out.

“Scrounge” was the Seventh Circuit panel’s verb of choice in its short-lived ruling to let the law take effect. The panel referred disapprovingly to people “unwilling to invest the necessary time” to “scrounge up a birth certificate and stand in line at the office that issues driver’s licenses.” To which Posner responded that “the author of this dissenting opinion” — that would be him — “has never seen his birth certificate and does not know how he would go about ‘scrounging’ it up. Nor does he enjoy waiting in line at motor vehicle bureaus.”

Posner wrote that since voter-impersonation fraud is virtually non-existent, the only motivation for such requirements is “to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.” He uses charts to show that of the nine states with the strictest ID requirements, eight laws were passed by all-GOP legislatures and seven of the eight also had GOP governors.

The morality of all this is bad enough — we’re talking about voting, for Pete’s sake, the bedrock of the republic, a right people died to win. But the voter ID fad also reveals flawed political strategy. It courts backlash, in the form of higher minority turnout. And it will make it harder to repair relations with the affected groups when demographic reality takes hold and the GOP needs their votes.

If the Supreme Court decides to rule on the merits of voter ID laws, let’s hope it acts with more dispatch than it did on poll taxes. The taxes were declared constitutional in 1937. It was not until 1966, two years after the 24th Amendment banning them in federal elections, that the high court ruled them unconstitutional in all elections. We don’t need 29 years to know that voter suppression is wrong.

 

By: Jill Lawrence, The National Memo, October 16, 2014

October 17, 2014 Posted by | Poll Tax, Voter ID, Voter Suppression | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Texas’ Poll Tax In Disguise”: A Republican Voter Exclusion Campaign

In 1964, the American people enacted the 24th Amendment, to prevent the exclusion of the poor from the ballot box. In his speech last week at the NAACP convention, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. wasn’t indulging in election-year rhetoric when he condemned Texas’ 2011 voter photo identification law as a poll tax that could do just that. He was speaking the hard legal truth.

The Justice Department would be right to challenge this new law as an unconstitutional poll tax. The department has temporarily blocked the Texas law under special provisions of the Voting Rights Act that prevent states with a history of discrimination from disadvantaging minority groups. But the

attorney general should go further and raise a 24th Amendment challenge against Texas and other states that are joining the effort to bar the poor from the polls. This exclusionary campaign should not be allowed to destroy a great constitutional achievement of the civil rights revolution.

The 24th Amendment forbids the imposition of “any poll tax or other tax” in federal elections. Texas’ law flatly violates this provision in dealing with would-be voters who don’t have a state-issued photo ID. To obtain an acceptable substitute, they must travel to a driver’s license office and submit appropriate documents, along with their fingerprints, to establish their qualifications. If they don’t have the required papers, they must pay $22 for a copy of their birth certificate.

If they can’t come up with the money for the qualifying documents, they can’t vote. But the 24th Amendment denies states the power to create such a financial barrier to the ballot box.

Texas’ violation is particularly blatant. In drafting its law, the Legislature rejected a provision that would have provided free copies of the necessary documents. Rather than paying for this service out of the general revenue fund, it chose to disqualify voters who couldn’t pay the fee. This is precisely the choice forbidden by the Constitution.

The 24th Amendment doesn’t only invalidate the $22 tax. Texas also can’t impose unnecessarily arduous certification procedures. The Supreme Court took up this issue shortly after the amendment was ratified in 1964. The state of Virginia had told its citizens they could avoid its $1.50 poll tax only if they filed a formal certificate establishing their residency. Lars Forssenius and others refused to comply, and a near-unanimous Supreme Court in 1965 agreed with them. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the ruling that the state’s administraton of its residency certificate requirement was a “real obstacle to voting in federal elections” that “abridged” the franchise. He emphasized that constitutional end-runs were not permitted. “For federal elections,” he explained, “the poll tax is abolished absolutely as a prerequisite to voting, and no equivalent or milder substitute may be imposed.”

This broad functional view of taxation is firmly rooted in our constitutional tradition. In his recent opinion in the healthcare case, for example, Chief Justice John G. RobertsJr.adopted the same approach in finding that the “penalty” imposed by the Affordable Care Act was the functional equivalent of a tax.

But in Warren’s ruling, the same broad approach to taxation led to a very different conclusion. Unlike Roberts, Warren was not marking out the boundaries of congressional power. He was restricting the power of the states to impose unnecessary administrative barriers that were the functional equivalents of poll taxes.

Applying Warren’s approach to the present day has large practical implications. The estimated number of registered voters in Texas without valid IDs ranges from 167,000 (according to the state) to more than 1 million (according to the federal government). The Justice Department also emphasizes that minority groups are disproportionately affected. What is more, 10 other states have passed similar laws in the last two years alone. All these statutes raise fundamental problems under the 24th Amendment.

Curiously, these problems have been overlooked in the escalating wave of challenges to this recent round of exclusionary legislation. Civil rights lawyers have focused instead on more familiar texts such as the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment. Though these provisions are important, they were created in response to a host of other issues. The poll tax amendment, in contrast, was focused on the very problem that now threatens again to undermine our democracy: imposing costs on the poor that prevent them from voting.

The attorney general was right to recall the amendment from legal obscurity, and to insist that we remember the determined effort by the civil rights generation to end this disgraceful practice forever.

 

By: Bruce Ackerman and Jennifer Nou, The Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2012

July 15, 2012 Posted by | Civil Rights, Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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