Problems with Voter Identification Legislation following Shelby County v. Holder

By: Erin Mee

This past June, the Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder to strike down the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states with histories of racially motivated voter suppression to obtain preclearance with the federal government before implementing any changes in voting laws. The Court ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional because it was based on an outdated formula that does not take into account increases in minority voter turnout, registration, and political representation. The Supreme Court further reasoned that the provision was no longer necessary because Congress failed to reauthorize it in 2006, leading the Court to assert that continuing to enforce the preclearance requirement was a vast overreach of the Court’s power.

Almost immediately after the provision was struck down, North Carolina and Texas, two states that were previously required under the Voting Rights Act to demonstrate a racially neutral reason for changes in voting laws, passed voter identification laws that will likely disenfranchise thousands of minority voters. North Carolina’s new voter ID law requires a state-issued photo ID for the 2016 election. Previously, North Carolina did not have a voter ID law.

Texas already had a voter identification law in place before the Supreme Court’s decision. Under that law, Texans were required to bring a state-issued voter certificate that contained their name, address and other identifying information. If they did not have that information, voters could sign an affidavit swearing to their identity under penalty of law or they could supply a driver’s license, an employee ID (with photograph), a passport, a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck. Texas’ new voter ID law would limit the list of acceptable identification down to just a driver’s license, state identification, passport, or concealed weapon gun permit. While the state issued ID is free, the documents required to qualify for it (birth certificates, naturalization papers, or social security cards) are not.

Both North Carolina’s and Texas’ laws are highly problematic because many groups lack access to the resources that will enable them to acquire the identification necessary to vote. Because obtaining a voter ID and the supporting documentation requires time, effort, and the risk of  lost wages and increased childcare costs,  this law could significantly infringe on a citizen’s right to vote in North Carolina and Texas.

Civil rights leaders and opponents of voter ID laws argue that these laws are unnecessary because there are already safeguards in place to prevent voting fraud. They point to the fact that many studies show that instances of voting fraud are extremely uncommon. On the other hand, proponents of the laws claim that the ID requirement adds an essential element of certainty to elections that the safeguards already in place cannot do.

The groups that are most likely to be affected by the voter ID laws include racial minorities, young people, the poor, and the elderly. In addition, many potential voters are likely to be included in more than one category. Most significantly, people who are likely to be affected by this law overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates. This is significant to note because the North Carolina and Texas voter ID laws were passed by Republican legislatures and signed into law by Republican governors. This indicates that these laws may have been passed with voter suppression in mind.

The timing of these laws, immediately following the Court’s decision in Shelby, is suspect. Voter ID laws, instead of encouraging participation in the electoral process, discourage the more vulnerable members of society from voting. These laws are eerily similar to Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, and literacy tests that were used in the past to suppress minority voting rights while preserving the status quo. Voter ID laws, like the ones in Texas and North Carolina, disregard the underpinnings of democracy in favor of unethical and undemocratic political maneuvering.

Luckily, these laws are being challenged in both North Carolina and Texas by the NAACP, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of Texas, and other concerned or affected citizens. The Justice Department is also suing the state of North Carolina over its voter ID Law. Attorney General Holder called the North Carolina law “an intentional attempt to break a system that was working.” While this litigation is pending, Congress should take the proactive step of passing legislation that reintroduces the recently nullified provision of the Voting Rights Act in order to protect citizens from disenfranchisement.

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