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Voting rights have been under attack in state legislatures across the country for more than a decade and there are no signs of it letting up in 2013. Indeed 2013 could be a year that sets back voting rights more than all of the attacks of the past decade combined.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures since 2001, nearly 1,000 voter ID bills have been introduced in a total of 46 states. Twenty-four states have passed major legislation during the period 2003-2012.
2013 has already seen photo ID legislation introduced or soon to be introduced in Alaska, Montana, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri and Wisconsin. The make-up of each state government will ultimately determine the outcome of these bills. In some states, like New York and Montana, it may be possible to stop or lessen the impact of some of these bills, in other states like Alaska, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Missouri, which have fended off photo ID bills for multiple years, proposed legislation is more likely be passed due to changes in the make-up of their state government following the 2012 elections.
Missouri and Wisconsin would need to pass a state constitutional amendment in order to enact a voter photo ID law in their respective states (assuming the courts continue to strike down the Wisconsin photo ID law as unconstitutional under their state constitution – something that the Missouri State Supreme Court did several years ago). This would likely be a multi-year process, giving voting rights advocates time to continue to educate the public about both the cost of such a proposal, the fundamental American values it undermines, as well as the barriers it erects for many voters. If photo ID does go before the voters in these states, we can look to Minnesota for how to successfully beat back a ballot measure; Minnesota proved that when we have time to discuss it with the public they overwhelming reject photo ID - but it takes a great deal of resources (including staff, volunteers and funding) to succeed.
Nearly half of North Carolina counties and all of Alaska are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – thus while these states may vote on voter ID legislation, any changes to their election laws would need to be pre-cleared with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and/or a three judge panel in Washington DC. In 2012, a voter ID law in Texas was struck down through this process.
While there is plenty of action happening at the state level to limit voting rights, perhaps the greatest threat to voting rights in a generation will occur at the national level when the U.S. Supreme Court hears two important voting rights cases this year.
The outcome of these cases will determine what laws are at our, voting rights advocates, disposal to protect the right to vote in this country.
And after all of this, voter photo ID is not the only threat to voting rights. We’ll also be working to defeat attacks to decrease early voting days, illegally purge voting rolls, and make it more difficult to register to vote.
Indeed, we have a great deal of work to do - there is no rest for the weary.