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Voter ID Laws Face Uncertain Future After Court Decisions


Yesterday a federal judge in North Dakota ruled that state can no longer enforce its voter identification law. The court said the law made it nearly impossible for Native Americans to vote. North Dakota is 1 of 4 states where federal courts recently have struck down or temporarily halted strict voter ID laws. Rick Hasen is a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and he is with us to talk about these rulings. Welcome to the show.

RICK HASEN: Oh, it's a pleasure to be with you.

MCEVERS: So in just the past few weeks, courts have ruled on challenges to voter ID laws in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and now North Dakota. What do all these rulings have in common?

HASEN: Well, first of all, they have in common the timing. The Supreme Court in the 2014 election sent a very strong signal. These cases have to be resolved earlier. And so that's why we're seeing them in July and August rather than September and October.

But what they also have in common is that there's a claim that these laws, either intentionally or at least in effect, are having disproportion impact on certain people who are less likely to have the narrow list of IDs that are acceptable in these states. And as a result, the laws are perhaps unconstitutional or violate the Voting Rights Act or both.

MCEVERS: Do you think this will happen in more states before the presidential election in November?

HASEN: Well, we're coming up closer to that election. I think all of the challenges that have been filed are likely to be filed at least to the laws that are already on the books now. But these cases are not all final.

So for example, in Texas, the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit sent it back to the trial court to come up with a workaround for voters who lack the right IDs. Of course any of these could potentially end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, so we might not have the final word on the cases that have already been decided.

MCEVERS: Backers of these kinds of strict voter ID laws cite voter fraud as their main concern. Is voter fraud actually a big problem right now in these states?

HASEN: Well, in these opinions, the courts seem to unanimously agree that the kind of voter fraud that a voter ID law would prevent, impersonating fraud - you know, I go to the polling place and pretend I'm you - that that is exceptionally rare. The states couldn't point to any kind of real problem with that.

There are problems with voter fraud such as with absentee ballots being stolen or sometimes people bribed to vote in a particular way, but these laws were not targeted at that kind of fraud. And one of the things that the court said is, if you're really concerned about fraud, your laws would look different than these look. These laws look, the North Carolina decision said, like they were aimed with surgical precision to make it harder for African-Americans to be able to vote.

MCEVERS: So if these laws did specifically want to stop voter fraud, what would that look like in your opinion?

HASEN: Well, if you really wanted to get rid of the most prevalent form of voter fraud, you would not allow people to vote by absentee ballot, to vote by mail unless they had some kind of excuse, like they were out of the country or disabled.

But I think that's something that society probably wouldn't tolerate because we recognize that there are trade-offs. There's no perfect election system, but these laws are not even targeted at the little bit of fraud that actually is happening.

MCEVERS: Still, in many states where there haven't been legal challenges, there will be stricter voter ID requirements in place, stricter than ever before for this election.

HASEN: That's right. And to be clear, not all of these cases said get rid of the voter ID law entirely. So for example, one of the judges in Wisconsin said, if you don't have the right form of ID, you can sign an affidavit saying, this is who I am; I swear this under penalty of perjury, and that would be good enough. We don't know exactly what it's going to be.

But it does raise the question, are people going to know what the rules are because it turns out in practice in some of the states that have these kind of softening devices like South Carolina, poll workers and voters don't really know they're allowed to vote if they lack the ID because the state hasn't really publicized it. And so how these things work on the ground is very different than how the courts envision them working when they issue their rulings.

MCEVERS: That's Rick Hasen. He's a professor at the University of California, Irvine. Thank you so much.

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

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