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Voter Suppression Laws Overturned in Battleground States: a Win for the American People, and Obama

This article is an update to a previously published report on voter suppression laws.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth circuit restored early voting in Ohio on Friday.  The court decision restores voting for the 3-day period before Election Day. The court decision is a win for voter rights and a win for Obama.

Bob Bauer, general counsel for Obama for America, said “With today’s decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Ohio joins Wisconsin, Florida, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania as states that turned back restrictions on voter access and limitations on voter participation.”

Republican governors and legislatures in battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have had their efforts to restrict voter turnout temporarily delayed by a series of court decisions.

Most people associate voter suppression with voter identification laws. But voter suppression also includes efforts to suppress voter turnout by eliminating early voting, restricting voter registration drives and redistricting to disadvantage minority voters

The ACLU said that early voting accounted for 30% of all votes cast in the 2008 election.

The Brennan Center for Justice reported that nine states introduced bills to reduce early voting and four tried to eliminate absentee voting. Four of the 5 states that succeeded in enacting bills reducing early voting were led by Republicans, including Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Tennessee.

Six battleground states (FL, MI, OH, NC, NV, WI) all led by Republicans, enacted laws that made voter registration more difficult.

The Justice Department, the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice have been battling efforts, primarily led by Republicans to suppress voter turnout all over the country and they have been racking up victories for voter rights. They have been successful in all of their challenges to voter restriction this year.

Bloomberg News reported there are at least 15 cases pending nationally over voter restriction issues including early voting, registration and photo identification requirements in the run-up to the November 6 election. 

In August, a federal judge blocked provisions enacted by the Republican legislature to restrict voter registration drives in Florida. Voter registration had steadily decreased, particularly amongst Democrats ever since the passing of the new law. The voter registration changes were part of a sweeping change in Florida election law that is now being challenged in a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department as a violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act.

Texas has had multiple setbacks in their attempt to control voter turnout. In August, judges ruled that their voter ID implementation violated civil rights protections. Additionally, judges found that the Republican-led legislature of Texas had “improperly redrawn its voting districts to the disadvantage of minority voters.” The Reuters report said that the redistricting discriminated against Hispanics and blacks. In his decision against Texas’ voter ID law, U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel wrote, “[The voter ID law] imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor and racial minorities in Texas.” 

The Republican administration requires Texans to apply for state ID at a public safety office.  Almost a third of Texas counties don’t have one, in some cases the nearest office is 100-125 miles away. In a Bloomberg report, Judge Tatel said, “even the most committed citizen, and would agree that a 200 to 250-mile round trip especially for would-be voters having no driver’s license, constitutes a ‘substantial burden’ on the right to vote.”

On Tuesday, a Pennsylvania judge blocked a new photo requirement enacted by the Republican legislature. The judge ruled that the state could not “effectively implement” the law in a timely fashion without presenting an unnecessary burden on the voter. CNN reported that the judge felt it was likely that eligible voters would be disqualified if the state implemented the requirement. Judge Simpson wrote, “I am still not convinced in my predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the commonwealth's implementation of a voter identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election."

On Wednesday, Mississippi announced that they would not implement their voter identification requirement for this election. Breitbart reported that the Republican Attorney General’s office required more time to comply with the Justice Department request to supply documentation and supporting data to prove that the law does not hinder minority voting or if it does remedies the state would put in place to resolve and remove any hindrances.

The judge presiding over South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Hayley’s voter identification law suit also questioned whether the voters would have enough time to get the required identification for this year’s election. South Carolina’s process for voters without ID was met with skepticism. Voters with a “reasonable impediment”, a subjective assessment at best, could fill out a provisional ballot and sign a notarized affidavit. The notary would be free; however the Washington Post reported that poll managers would sign the affidavits if notaries were not available which is illegal. Attorney Garrard Beeney pointed out that notaries require individuals to present the same id needed to vote, before they can notarize a document.

Wisconsin’s Republican backed voter ID law violated the state constitution and therefore was ruled unconstitutional by a state judge.  Huffington Post reported on Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess decision. He wrote "a government that undermines the very foundation of its existence the people's inherent, pre-constitutional right to vote imperils its legitimacy as a government by the people, for the people, and especially of the people."

The Kansas City Star reported that a Cole County judge struck down an attempt by Republicans to amend the Missouri Constitution to require photo identification at the polls. The judge said that the summary description of the ballot was “insufficient and unfair.”  

The Justice Department approved New Hampshire’s voter identification legislation. Under the new law that was passed by the Republican controlled state legislature, voters will be required to show a photo ID or sign an affidavit attesting to their identity in order to cast their ballots in this year’s presidential election. Londonberry News said New Hampshire would use a phased approach, allowing voters the time to adjust to the new procedure. The Justice Department felt that this provided the leeway to approve the change.

The majority of Americans support photo identification requirements. The lawsuits simply seek to ensure that the policies are implemented without disenfranchising voters. The people who are most affected by the change in the voting laws, poor and low income workers, minorities, young students, and members of the LGBTQ community tend to overwhelmingly vote Democratic and support Obama.

Reuters reported that Circuit Judge David Tatel voiced the concern of many regarding the voter identification requirements. He wrote that evidence showed the Texas law did the most harm to African Americans and Hispanics. Furthermore, “those without the underlying documents to obtain ID would have to purchase them, discouraging poor voters.”

The Huffington Post said, “according to a recent study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, over 25,000 otherwise eligible transgender voters could be turned away at their polling places come November due to the potential discrepancy between a voter's gender identity and his or her designated sex on state-issued identification. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) found over 40% of transgender men and women do not have an ID that accurately reflects their gender.”

In Pennsylvania, the Obama campaign welcomed the ruling as “great news.” ABC News reported, “This decision makes one thing clear for the people there: if you’re eligible to vote, you’ll be able to vote on Election Day,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “We believe that the right to vote is an American value.”

In the Ohio case, the court rejected the Republican Secretary of State and Attorney General’s attempt to restrict early voting for everyone except the military. Bloomberg reported that the three judge panel found “No relevant distinction” between the military personnel and civilians need for early voting. They said, “the state argues that military voters need extra early voting time because they could be suddenly deployed. But any voter could be suddenly called away and prevented from voting on Election Day.

Black churches had rallied against the proposed change in Ohio’s early voting law. Many churches organize what is known as “Soul to the Polls” services on the Sunday before election Tuesday. Although the service is non-partisan and secular, Black church members overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

To symbolize their victory in Ohio, State Senator Nina Turner, a Democrat from Cleveland, led voters in a “sleepover” in front of election boards throughout the state. “Sleep out the Vote” was organized to draw a spotlight on Republicans attempts to restrict voter turnout in Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported "There's no question there's an effort going on to suppress voters," Turner said. "What we're doing here is a symbolic gesture. Could we have just voted at 8:00 am and avoided sleeping outside and perhaps getting rained on? The answer is yes, but we're seeking attention we want voters to exercise their right to vote, no matter what the restrictions. For that, it's worth getting rained on."

Stefanie Brown, the Barack Obama black voter outreach director, said the sleepover shows the importance the president is placing on early voting in Ohio. Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama's brother and the president's brother-in-law, appeared at the sleepover to show solidarity with the movement.

Senator Nina Turner discusses early voting voter laws in Ohio.

Melissa Harris Perry leads a discussion on voter restriction efforts in the Black community.

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