Status of Voter ID Laws after 2016

2016 was a remarkable year in many ways, not least of which was the number of court decisions on voter ID laws.  What is the state of the law on the validity of voter ID requirements after 2016?:

Rule One: Voter ID, by itself, is presumptively valid. In the immediate post-HAVA era, new photo ID laws were seen as a threat and drew litigation challenges accordingly. Over time, however, courts – including the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2008 Crawford case – came to accept voter ID and uphold it against what lawyers call “facial” challenges; i.e., challenges to its mere existence. More specifically, courts are accepting states’ proffered justifications of fraud prevention and are finding that ID laws, by themselves, are not an undue burden on voters. In 2017 and beyond, therefore, any plaintiff challenging a new or existing voter ID law will have to do more than simply allege discrimination and/or limitation of voting rights to prevail. 

Rule Two: legislative intent behind voter ID matters. That said, general judicial acceptance of voter ID laws erodes quickly if there is evidence of actual discriminatory intent behind their enactment. In 2016, federal appeals courts blocked election laws in Texas and North Carolina because of evidence that legislators in both states had consulted, and may have relied upon, data suggesting those laws would disproportionately affect protected minorities under the Voting Rights Act. Going forward, any legislature seeking to enact or expand voter ID laws will be closely scrutinized to ensure that similar discriminatory intent is not motivating those laws. Note, however, that plaintiffs challenging such laws may no longer be able to count on support from the U.S. Department of Justice under the new Administration. 

Rule Three: whether and how voters without ID can get it is crucial. While facial challenges to voter ID laws are likely to fail, recent experience suggests that an “as-applied” challenge focused on the implementation of these laws has more likelihood of success. State and federal courts have been very clear that voter ID requirements begin to lose their presumption of validity when evidence suggests that voters without ID can’t actually get it. These fights can be intensely detailed; in Wisconsin, courts temporarily halted implementation of ID laws because of deficiencies at the state DMV in training staff to assist voters with obtaining ID, and in Texas the instructions to poll workers about what kind of ID could be required were subjected to direct oversight by the court. In this environment, the voter ID fight isn’t about sweeping legal issues but rather the nitty-gritty of implementation. 

What does this mean for voter ID going forward? I think it’s pretty straightforward: legislatures are likely free to enact such laws if they have the votes, but there must be no evidence of discriminatory intent and implementation matters; in other words, it isn’t enough to simply say voters will be allowed to get free IDs – there has to be an actual plan. In this environment, theoretical legal arguments about the constitutionality of ID laws are most powerful during legislative debate but are unlikely to succeed in court. The real fight is over intent and what happens after enactment. Proponents and opponents alike would be well-advised to put less emphasis on legal research and more on data gathering.

We are hopeful that some of the bad decisions on voter ID will be overturned in 2017.  Here are some of the notable voter ID stories from 2016: