With a decision to block implementation of Wisconsin’s controversial voter ID law for the 2014 election, the United States Supreme Court has opted for common sense and democracy over chaos and disenfranchisement.
After a wild judicial ride that saw the Wisconsin law rejected by a federal judge, approved by an appeals court panel, wrangled over by the full appeals court and then finally moved toward an unexpected and rapid process of implementation in time for the state’s high-stakes November 4 election, the Supreme Court pulled the brakes. In an emergency ruling, the High Court’s 6-3 decision vacated the appeals court ruling, preventing the law from going into effect before it can be reviewed. (The only dissents came from rigidly conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.)
Walker, who is seeking re-election this year (even as he prepares to campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination), has steadily defended the voter ID law, just as he has counted on its implementation in time for the November 4 election. For the governor, the High Court ruling is a serious political and policy setback.
For civil rights and voting rights activists, however, it a striking victory. They welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling as recognition of a reality stated by League of Women Voters of Wisconsin executive director Andrea Kaminski: “Clearly there was not enough time for election officials to educate voters, prepare new materials and implement the law in the short time before the November 4 election.”
Legal and practical concerns about last-minute disruption of the voting process may explain what would otherwise seem to be a confusing pattern of decisions by the High Court, which on Wednesday voted to reinstate voting restrictions in North Carolina. (Another decision, on Thursday evening, by US District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, struck down the Texas Voter ID law, which the jurist dismissed as a “poll tax” that would create “an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote”—especially for Latino and African-American citizens.)
The United States has uneven voting rules and regulations from state to state, and even within states. This invites abuse and disenfranchisement, and the courts and Congress have a broad responsibility to address dysfunctional and discriminatory electoral practices. That responsibility becomes even greater when late-breaking rule changes upset the orderly conduct of elections.