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U.S. Supreme Court Court Halts Wis. Voter ID Law; Texas Law Overturned


There were two major decisions last night about voter ID laws. In Texas, a federal judge struck down that state's strict voter ID requirement, calling it unconstitutional. At just about the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order blocking Wisconsin from implementing its voter ID law in this year's election. These are the latest in a number of court rulings involving voting rules.

This is happening just weeks before the election of course. We are joined in the studio by NPR's Pam Fessler who covers voting issues. Pam, let's start in Texas. What did the judge rule there?

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Well, Texas has one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country, and voting rights groups have been challenging it as discriminatory. Last night, District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos agreed. She had a very strongly-worded opinion. She said the law discriminated against Hispanic and African-American voters because they're less likely to have the required government-issued photo ID and also might have a more difficult time getting it. She said the law effectively imposed a poll tax because some voters would have to pay to get documents such as a birth certificate in order to get a photo ID. And perhaps most importantly, she found that the state enacted the law with the actual intention of discriminating, which is very significant. I should say within minutes of the decision, the Texas Attorney General's office issued a statement saying the state would immediately appeal this decision. So this is definitely not the last we're going to hear about this. And it's still an open question whether in fact Texas voters will have to show ID this election season.

MARTIN: OK, and the second state's Wisconsin. What happened in that case?

FESSLER: That's right. So last night, the Supreme Court blocked a federal appeals court ruling that had allowed the state's voter ID law to go into effect this year. So this now means that Wisconsin voters do not have to show photo ID at the polls this year. We had three justices dissented - Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. But interestingly, in the dissent, Justice Alito said that imposing the ID law so close to the election was troubling. And that was one of the main arguments that opponents of the law had made. That it just was too close to the election to put something like this into effect.

The law had been on hold for about two years while it was being challenged in court. But in September, a federal court ruled that it could go into effect. By that time, the state had already sent out absentee ballots without the voter ID instructions on them. They were having to go back, try and contact all those voters and say, you have to send in a photo ID for your absentee ballot to count. So as you can imagine, it was quite a mess. Now, that will not be the case. Those votes will count.

MARTIN: All right, but these were not the only rulings by the Supreme Court in recent days on voting laws.

FESSLER: That's right. There's been a lot of activity. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court reversed a decision by a federal appeals court that had blocked part of North Carolina's voting law from going into effect. So that means that voters in North Carolina this year cannot register and vote on the same day. And if they cast a ballot in the wrong precinct, even accidentally, the vote won't count as it has in the past. Also last week, the Supreme Court voted to allow Ohio to cut some of its early voting.

MARTIN: But this is happening so close to an election. I mean, as you've just explained, that can make things more complicated. What's the reason behind this timing?

FESSLER: Right, this is highly unusual. And the big reason, as you recall, there were a lot of new voting laws passed in recent years in state legislatures - mostly Republican legislatures - voting rights groups have had to turn to the courts to try and block these laws. They argue that most of them are discriminatory and that they are aimed at minority and other voters who tend to vote Democratic. Sponsors of the law, on the other hand, argue that the laws actually prevent very few eligible voters from casting ballots. They say they're needed to help protect against voter fraud, although there's been little evidence in court that this is a big problem. We're going to see a lot more of litigation in the next year on this issue.

MARTIN: Not over yet. Yeah. NPR's Pam Fessler. Thanks so much, Pam.

FESSLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.