Big voting changes coming to the South in 2014
Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin blogged in The New Yorker recently that voting rights cases will be one of the top seven legal stories of 2014.
"After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County case, several Republican-dominated states immediately tightened their laws to make it harder to voter," he wrote.
While legal decisions on voting rights are pending right now in Northern states including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, many of the big stories will come from the South. With new election rules in place, next year will prove pivotal for observing how these changes might disrupt voting practices, especially for the upcoming mid-term elections.
Here is a round-up of Southern states where voters face major shakeups:
The section of North Carolina's far-reaching new elections law that has gotten the most attention is the requirement for certain forms of photo identification to vote, but that provision won’t kick in until 2016 -- unless ongoing litigation overturns it. However, the law makes other election changes that voters should be aware of.
One is a change in how provisional ballots will or won't be counted. Since 2007, if you happened to be in the wrong precinct when attempting to vote -- what's been dubbed "right church/wrong pew" voting -- you could cast a provisional ballot and prove later that you are registered and eligible to vote. But as of 2014, those who show up at the wrong precinct will not be allowed to vote.
Also changing in 2014 is the number of days for early voting -- 10, down from the 17 that were available before. The new law also eliminates same-day voter registration. North Carolina is currently tied up in litigation around those two changes, along with the voter ID requirement, because of possible racially discriminatory effects.
And the changes don’t stop there: North Carolina voters will no longer have the option to vote for all the candidates of a preferred party -- straight-ticket voting -- in one action. There will be more partisan poll observers allowed in precincts, even if not from the same neighborhood. And it will be easier for any voter to challenge another’s eligibility, which can slow down if not halt challenged voters' access to their ballots.
It’s for these reasons that North Carolina's voting law has been called the "most restrictive" in the nation.
Alabama was among the first states to adopt a voter ID law, passing one in 2003 and then in 2011 tightening restrictions around what kind of ID could be used. The state delayed the effective date of the law until 2014, bypassing all of the legal challenges that have confronted and stymied other states that tried to implement voter ID earlier, such as Texas and South Carolina.
Like those two states, Alabama once had to submit its election laws to the federal government for approval under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act because of its history of racial discrimination at the polls. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer invalidated the coverage formula for Section Five and released those states and others across the South from this obligation.
That Supreme Court ruling resulted from a challenge to Section Five by Alabama's own Shelby County -- a chronic violator of voting rights protections.
In 2013, the GOP-dominated Arkansas legislature passed a voter ID law that was vetoed by Gov. Mike Beebe (D) but then restored by lawmakers. As of Jan. 1, 2014, Arkansas voters will need a a driver's license, concealed carry license, a U.S. passport, state or federal government employee ID, U.S. military ID, college ID card or public assistance ID card in order to vote.
Each of the state's 75 counties now has machines that will issue free photo IDs to those without one so that they can vote. But the problem with free photo IDs, as voters learned in Texas and Pennsylvania, is that they don't always meet the needs of voters. That's because if citizens don't have the underlying documents needed like a birth certificate or Social Security card, then they can't get the ID.
The state's ACLU is watching the voter ID rollout and says it may challenge it.
There's rarely a year that goes by that doesn't involve voter controversies in Florida. In 2012, it became the poster child for states with the longest waiting times for voters. Those delays were attributed to the cuts Florida's legislature made to early voting, which North Carolina appears to have mimicked. Florida lawmakers learned their lesson and restored the full early voting period.
Then in November 2013, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a directive stating that voters had to deliver or mail absentee ballots directly to their county’s supervisor of elections. Previously, voters could drop off absentee ballots at other sites like early voting polling locations.
One elections official has said she will defy the directive out of concern for its effect on an upcoming January primary election: Pinellas County election supervisor Deborah Clark said her voters are accustomed to using to two library branches and three tax collector offices for dropping off ballots, and she will allow them to do so next year.
Detzner said he won't stand in Clark's way for that election, the Tampa Bay Times reported. But he has not changed his directive, which means it's still on for the rest of the state.
A photo voter ID law was passed in Mississippi through ballot referendum in 2012, but its implementation was slowed by a pending federal review when Voting Rights Act Section Five oversight was still in place. Immediately after the Supreme Court stripped that oversight away, Mississippi's Secretary of State announced the state was moving forward with the law.
It's now scheduled to kick in in June 2014, despite data showing that African Americans in the state are more likely to lack photo ID than white voters. But like North Carolina, Mississippi has a Democratic attorney general who is not in full support of the voter ID law, which could help in terms of oversight.
But the new law probably won't change the fact that Mississippi perennially comes in dead last among all states in voter participation, according to the Pew Center on the States' Election Performance Index.
Virginia was another of the former Section Five Voting Rights Act states that passed a voter ID mandate. But its 2012 law initially passed federal scrutiny, meaning the government found no racial discrimination would result. The law allowed an expansive set of identification to be used for voting, including those without photos of the voter.
But in 2013, Virginia passed another voter ID law that narrowed the list of IDs eligible for voting and took all non-photo forms off the table. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act gave the state a clear path to implement the law without federal review, and it will go into effect on July 1, 2014. If a Virginia voter shows up at a polling place without ID, he or she can vote provisionally but will have to visit the electoral board by noon of the third day after the election with the required ID in order for the vote to count.
In a positive development for voting rights in 2013, Virginia eased restrictions on voting imposed on those with nonviolent felony convictions. A new governor, Terry McAuliffe, will take office in 2014, and voting rights advocates expect him to lift those restrictions even further.
Brentin Mock is a contributor to Facing South focusing on voting rights.