New voter ID laws: Nothing like it ‘since Reconstruction’

Activists protest outside the House chamber in Nashville last month about issues including voter ID laws.
(Erik Schelzig / Associated Press)

A federal judge recently struck down a Wisconsin law that would have required voters to present a photo ID in order to vote, one in a series of judicial rulings addressing how states can control who gets to cast a ballot.

A slew of voter ID laws were passed after the 2010 election gave Republicans control of both branches of legislature in many states. Supporters say the laws prevent fraud at the polls.

But studies indicate that fraud is virtually nonexistent, and that states that saw higher minority turnout were more likely to pass voter ID laws, said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“We haven’t seen a legislative movement like this since Reconstruction,” she said.


Many of the laws went into effect in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelby County vs. Holder, struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required certain areas, such as states in the South, to get federal approval before changing their voting laws.

The Wisconsin case was significant because U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that Wisconsin’s law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, an argument that had not been frequently used in voting rights case. Section 2 prohibits voting practices that discriminate against minorities. Adelman wrote that the law made it harder for minorities to vote.

But in many cases, the voter ID laws passed since 2011 still stand. Here’s a rundown of certain state laws guiding who and when people can vote across the country — and the legal battles that continue to brew.

Voter identification

Alabama will require government-issued photo ID beginning with its June primaries. The state passed the law in 2011, but was able to implement it after the Shelby County vs. Holder ruling.

Arkansas passed a voter ID law in 2013. It was set to go into effect this year, until a state judge struck down the law Friday. The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed that decision as it decides whether to hear the case. The state holds its primary May 20.

Kansas began requiring photo IDs on Jan. 1, 2012. Two elderly men who had brought a lawsuit challenging the law recently dropped it.

Mississippi voters in 2011 approved a constitutional amendment requiring a photo ID to vote. After numerous court challenges, the requirement is expected to take effect this year.


North Carolina passed a law in 2013 that requires voters to show a photo ID at the polls. Voters are requested to bring an ID this year, but the law will go into full effect in 2016. The U.S. Justice Department sued the state last year; the lawsuit is still pending.

North Dakota also passed a photo ID law in 2013.

Pennsylvania in 2012 passed a voter ID law, but a state judge struck down the measure earlier this year. Last week, the court refused to revisit its decision, effectively killing the voter ID law, unless the state Supreme Court steps in.

Rhode Island became the only Democratic-controlled state to pass a voter ID law in 2011. It allows voters who do not bring an ID to the polls to vote using a provisional ballot, which is counted after a person’s eligibility to vote is verified.


South Carolina passed sweeping changes to its voter regulations in 2011, but numerous court challenges forced the state to temper its law. Voters must have a photo ID to vote, but if they don’t, they can sign an affidavit affirming their identity and then cast a ballot.

Tennessee also passed a law in 2011 requiring a photo ID to vote. Two Memphis voters challenged the law on the grounds that it placed an unfair burden on the poor and elderly, who sometimes lack driver’s licenses, but the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law last year. The state has also reduced the number of days of early voting.

Texas in 2011 passed what was considered one of the most stringent voting laws in the nation. It requires photo ID to vote, and says the name on the ID must match the name on the voting rolls. In 2012, a three-judge panel in U.S. District Court prohibited the state from enforcing the law, but the state was able to proceed after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby vs. Holder. It was enforced during the election in November.

Virginia changed its voting laws in 2013, limiting the types of documents that can be used to prove identification at the polls. Voters can no longer use utility bills, pay stubs, bank statements or Social Security cards as identification. The law goes into effect July 1.


Early voting

Florida cut back early voting hours beginning in 2012, but after long lines and outrage, the Legislature voted to restore much of the early voting that had been cut.

Georgia passed a bill in 2011 that reduced the number of early voting days to 21 from 45. A bill in the Legislature this year would have reduced that further, to six, but it did not pass.

Ohio passed a bill this year that eliminated its first week of early voting, which is often called “Golden Week” because voters can register and cast a ballot the same day. Secretary of State John Husted also issued a directive that closed polls on Sundays, evenings and the Monday before election day. The ACLU filed a lawsuit Thursday over these developments.


North Carolina in 2013 also changed the state’s early voting laws. Beginning this year, the number of days of early voting went to 10 from 17, though a section of the bill requires there be as many hours of early voting in 2014 as there were in 2010. It also ends same-day voter registration. The law is under litigation.

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