Tough new election laws aimed at forcing voters in many states to show photo identification at polling places have been blocked or delayed, delighting opponents who claim they were among a variety of partisan attempts to keep minorities from voting.
Supporters of the measures nevertheless predict they will prevail in the long run. And court battles continue in some states even as the Nov. 6 election date draws near.
The stakes are high especially in swing states where a close margin is expected in the race between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, as well as in numerous congressional and local campaigns. Other battles in key states such as Florida and Ohio have been fought over reductions in the number of early voting days and new restrictions on voter registration drives.
In the latest boon for Democrats, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for voters in Ohio to cast ballots on the three days before Election Day, giving Obama's campaign a victory three weeks before the election. The court refused a request by the state's Republican elections chief and attorney general to get involved in a battle over early voting.
"It's been a real remarkable string of victories," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "There is an overwhelming sense that the courts are skeptical of this push to restrict voting. They recognize the basic thrust of this effort is counter to democracy."
Yet proponents of the laws, which they say help guarantee integrity in the election process, can point to some victories as well. For example, a panel of three federal judges ruled earlier this month that South Carolina's new voter photo ID law complies with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and would not disenfranchise minorities. But the judges also said the law could not take effect until 2013.
"The long-term battle on this, opponents are losing that battle," said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. Of voter ID laws, he said: "The majority of decisions have upheld it."
The debate over the new laws focuses mainly on whether they might deter minority and elderly voters and those in lower economic classes from casting ballots. Photo IDs, for example, can require fees that some people can't pay. Shortening early voting days could disenfranchise minorities, particularly African-Americans who have embraced the practice in many states. Restrictions on registration drives could disproportionately affect minority populations that register at lower percentages than others.
In that view, according to University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith, the laws "have intentionally tried to crack down on the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities."
Supporters say such concerns are overblown and that such steps are critical to keep ineligible people from voting.
"How can you be against election integrity?" said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the Houston-based True The Vote group that is monitoring elections and challenging the validity of voter rolls in numerous states.
State and federal courts have been a major battleground over election laws. In Florida, a federal judge blocked new restrictions on voter registration drives. In Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court this week let stand a lower court's ruling that invalidated a law shortening the number of early voting days. Judges in Florida, on the other hand, have refused to block a law reducing that state's early voting days.
A panel of federal judges ruled that restrictive new photo ID requirements for Texas voters violated the Voting Rights Act. A federal appeals court upheld a ruling against Arizona's law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote; the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review it in the coming months.
Vetoes by governors in other states have blocked new election laws. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder angered many in his own party when he rejected a measure that, among other things, would require a photo ID to get an absentee ballot.
A Democrat, Gov. Beverly Perdue of North Carolina, also vetoed a voter photo ID bill, as did fellow New Hampshire Democratic Gov. John Lynch. But New Hampshire's Legislature overrode the veto and the law was cleared by the U.S. Justice Department as not a threat to disenfranchise minorities.
The debate over these issues has a sharply partisan tone, with Democrats claiming they're being orchestrated by Republicans nationwide to suppress minorities and others who tend to vote for Democrats. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who fought for black voting rights in the civil rights era, put it in personal terms in a recent congressional fundraising email ominously titled "They don't want you to vote."
"We're seeing a deliberate and systematic effort on the part of Republican officials to prevent minorities, seniors, the young and the poor from casting their ballots," Lewis wrote.
Republicans and their allies, however, say polls show broad support for such anti-fraud measures as a photo ID for voters and blame Democrats for turning such laws into divisive political controversies aimed at rallying their own supporters.
"It's just common sense that you require that somebody actually is who they claim to be," said Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, sponsor of his state's photo ID law. "It did turn into a partisan battle that probably shouldn't be partisan."
Indeed, Gihan Perera, of the Florida New Majority group, said the opposition of his and other organizations to attempts in Florida to purge voter rolls using questionable lists of non-citizens proved to be a key mobilization point for efforts to register tens of thousands of new voters.
"I would say the chill is gone," Perera said. "Despite the challenges that we had, we are making tremendous inroads."
For the future, the three federal judges in the South Carolina photo ID case provided a roadmap for an acceptable law. The key, they said, was that South Carolina will expand the types of acceptable forms of identification, provide a convenient way for people to get a free ID and allow those without ID to still cast ballots as long as they write an affidavit stating why.
The Texas law that was declared invalid, on the other hand, would have required many voters to present a birth certificate when registering, did not have convenient ways for people to obtain IDs in many counties and had no provision for voters to cast ballots without a photo ID.
"At first blush, one might have thought South Carolina had enacted a very strict photo ID law," the judges wrote. "Much of the initial rhetoric surrounding the law suggested as much. But that rhetoric was based on a misunderstanding of how the law would work."
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