Supreme Court Asked To Hear Voter ID Case As Crucial Year For Voting Rights Commences

As a steady rain falls, a morning commuter make her way past the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. (AP Phot
As a steady rain falls, a morning commuter make her way past the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON -- A team of legal advocates for voting rights on Wednesday filed a petition to the Supreme Court asking it to hear a case concerning Wisconsin's voter identification bill, which the court blocked ahead of November's midterm elections.

The petition seeking Supreme Court review was filed by the Advancement Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, two civil rights groups active in voting rights litigation across the country. The Supreme Court issued an emergency stay barring Wisconsin from enforcing the voter identification provision after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier decision blocking the law from going into effect.

"We think this is an issue of national importance that should be resolved before the 2016 election cycle, so we do think the 7th Circuit erred," Kathy Culliton-Gonzalez, the Advancement Project's director of voter protection, told The Huffington Post Tuesday. "We believe they used the wrong standard for [the Voting Rights Act's] Section 2 and that [the federal court's] decision was mistaken."

Wisconsin now has 60 days to respond to the group's petition. The Supreme Court will decide in the spring whether to accept jurisdiction for the case. Though the state's Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who signed the voter ID bill in 2011, said it was necessary to combat voter fraud, voting rights advocates say such laws unfairly restrict access to the ballot box for minority groups.

"It’s a bold move on our part but we know we’re right on the facts," Culliton-Gonzalez said. "Three hundred thousand registered Wisconsin voters don’t have the strict voter ID that the state would require. We’re in an era where there’s a war on voting, and the laws that we’re fighting do discriminate, they do disparately impact African-American and Latino voters."

What's common among the cases winding their way through the courts is the doctrine of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race. Section 2 is crucial to the arguments of voting rights groups given that the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the act, which required that parts of the country with a history of discrimination had to obtain permission before changing their voting laws.

Texas provides perhaps the most stark example of how voter identification measures impacted the 2014 midterm elections. Its requirement, which caused problems for college students, low-income people, those new to the state and the disabled, was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in October. However, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked that judge's decision and then the Supreme Court declined to issue an emergency stay, which it had done with its Wisconsin voter ID ruling.

Myrna Pérez, the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program deputy director, told HuffPost that her organization would file a brief to the 5th Circuit in February ahead of a spring hearing on the merits of their appeal.

"We have a really strong case, we have a very thoughtful decision from the federal judge, we have a judicially documented record of Texas putting barriers in front of the ballot box, and this is a case where we were able to present real live people who couldn’t vote because of this law," she said. "The justification and the need for this law in the face of those who were discriminated against, it just doesn’t hold up."

Voting rights restrictions passed by Ohio and North Carolina are also the subject of litigation. Dale Ho, who directs the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told HuffPost that he expects a district court ruling on Ohio's cuts to early voting by the end of the summer. The Supreme Court had granted a last-minute stay of a federal appeals court's ruling that restored early voting days.

In North Carolina, the Supreme Court allowed GOP-backed provisions barring out-of-precinct voting and eliminating same-day registration to remain in effect for the November election after the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down those measures. Last week, in a move civil rights advocates called unusual, attorneys for North Carolina petitioned the Supreme Court to review a preliminary injunction against the state's voting restrictions.

"What they’re trying to do is get the Supreme Court to step in and squash the case," Ho argued.

Supporters of the state's new voting restrictions have argued that 2014's turnout numbers don't reflect an unduly burdened electorate.

"[North Carolina's] already making that argument, which is kind of weird because usually you don’t make new factual arguments to the Supreme Court -- the whole point of a district court is that it's where you hear the facts," Ho said. And Ho rejected the argument that since black turnout increased by 2 percentage points from 2010 to 2014, the law didn't have a discriminatory impact.

"It’s a dangerous game to look at total turnout numbers and say it proves that a law has this effect or that effect," he said. "North Carolina turnout was up while Ohio turnout was down. North Carolina had the most expensive Senate race in history, it was very hotly contested, and Ohio didn’t. What we don’t know is, what would turnout look like had those restrictions not gone into effect?"



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