Andrew Guevara

November 2012

Regardless of political influences, motor vehicle departments are feeling the ramifications of state voter ID laws.

Voter identification headlines have graced the pages of news outlets with ever-increasing volume this election season, fueled by the upcoming general elections. Still, the subject is not a recent phenomenon. The subject has been a highly contentious issue over the course of the past decade in statehouses across the nation. Voter identification laws require voters to present a valid ID, some laws requiring a photo, at polling places in order to obtain a ballot and for the vote to be counted officially.

As one of the foremost subjects surrounding the election, voter identification remains a hot button issue for the fact that many of its opponents contend that it beckons back to a time before the Civil Rights Era. This side of the debate argues that voter identification laws are analogous to poll taxes and literacy tests that were meant to disenfranchise certain segments of the voting population. The other side of the debate argues that voter identification is necessary in order to thwart voting fraud.

Central to current voter identification laws are the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which, outlawed discriminatory voting practices that had been responsible for widespread disenfranchisement. Section 5 of the Act gives the Department of Justice the responsibility to review and approve (or grant preclearance to) any voting changes or practices in a pre-defined jurisdiction. This is to ensure that a change "does not deny or abridge the right to vote on the account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group," specifically those jurisdictions that had historically disenfranchised these minority groups.

As voter identification laws pass through state legislatures, some have encountered barriers to being implemented by being denied preclearance and encountering litigation at the state and federal level. The Justice Department has rejected many jurisdictions' requests for preclearance for having laws it deems too strict. In turn, some states have taken the matter to the federal court system to overturn the DOJ's decisions. States that do not require preclearance are also meeting litigious obstructions. Civil rights groups and advocates against voter identification laws are suing states so that the laws can be revoked or to have an injunction placed on the laws before the impending elections.

On March 12, 2012, Texas did not receive the necessary preclearance from the DOJ for its strict voter identification law, requiring voters to show a valid photo ID. As a consequence of being denied administrative approval from the Justice Department, the state decided to seek a declaratory judgment from a panel of three federal judges in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The panel denied the state's request for a declaratory judgment on August 30, 2012, based on the opinion that the law would cause retrogressive effects for racial minorities, thus striking down the appeal. This marked the first time a federal court has blocked a voter identification law.

Originating from civil rights groups and opponents of voter identification laws, the state of Pennsylvania faced similar legal obstacles to the implementation of its voter identification law. Since Pennsylvania does not require preclearance to change voting procedures, any legal objections would be addressed at the state level. On August 15, 2012, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson Jr. refused to issue a preliminary injunction against the state's recently enacted voter identification law, which would require voters to show proper photo ID at the polls to cast a ballot. The case was then appealed to the state supreme court. Once again, the court sent the case back directly to Judge Simpson to review his earlier decision with a stricter set of parameters. On October 2, 2012, the judge issued a temporary injunction to bar the law from taking effect before the November 6th general elections. This conferred the opinion that a sufficient amount of time did not exist to issue the proper number of newly-issued state voter IDs between the opinion date and the general election.

Texas and Pennsylvania serve as just two instances of outcomes that have played out over the past decade. Regardless of the political influences, motor vehicle departments are feeling the objective ramifications of state voter identification laws, including an influx of identification requests, distributing new state-mandated voter IDs, requiring training to employees and the growing costs associated with these demands. With changes occurring weekly to these laws, the test will not only be how state motor vehicle departments will respond to changes, but anticipate what changes will occur in order to stay ahead of the curve.