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Supreme Court Blocks Voting Law Changes in N.C., Wis., Ohio

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 10, 2014 1:59 PM

In what might be the most litigious election season in recent memory, the Supreme Court has stepped in and blocked three lower court rulings in the last week alone, some of which allowed controversial voting laws, and some of which blocked those laws. The seemingly conflicting rulings all have one thing in common: the Purcell rule.

Meantime, a court in Texas has blocked that state's voter ID law at the last second. A quick appeal, citing that same Purcell rule, is a foregone conclusion.

SCOTUS Week at FindLaw

Wis., N.C., Ohio Blocked

In the Wisconsin case, the Seventh Circuit held that a voter ID law could be enforced pending appeal. En banc was denied in a 5-5 split. Last night, the Supreme Court blocked the law from going into effect earlier this morning, with only a mild dissent from Justice Alito (joined by Scalia and Thomas) noting that while "[t]here is a colorable basis for the Court's decision due to the proximity of the upcoming general election, ... this Court 'may not vacate a stay entered by a court of appeals unless that court clearly and "demonstrably" erred in its application of "accepted standards."'"

In North Carolina, the state passed a law in 2013 eliminating same-day voter registration, the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct, the reduction of early voting days, and a voter ID requirement, among others. The Fourth Circuit allowed all of the changes except the cutback in early voting and recognition of out-of-precinct ballots. However, two days ago, the Supreme Court stepped in and allowed all of the state's changes, which have been in effect since at least the 2014 primary election, to stay in effect over a short dissent by Justice Ginsburg (joined by Sotomayor).

And in Ohio, where the state cut back early voting opportunities and same-day registration, the Supreme Court stepped in last week and allowed the election to proceed as planned by the state, contrary to the district court and Sixth Circuit's holdings.

What Do They All Have in Common?

Purcell v. Gonzalez. In 2006, the Supreme Court blocked a last-minute change to voting laws in Arizona. Why? Here's the money quote:

"Court orders affecting elections, especially conflicting orders, can themselves result in voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls. As an election draws closer, that risk will increase."

In other words, don't confuse the common folk with a bunch of last-minute changes. The rulings in Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina all point in different directions, with some courts siding with challengers to laws and others siding with the states. The Court has blocked all of the rulings, which says little about the Court's overall leanings, but says a lot about how important the Purcell rule is to the Court.

Is Texas Next?

The other election news of the week was a district court's ruling against Texas's voter ID law. According to The New York Times, after a two-week trial, the court found that the state's voter ID law "creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose," Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos wrote.

Of course, by blocking the law at the last minute, the court violated the Purcell rule. A spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office said that the state would immediately appeal "to avoid voter confusion in the upcoming election."

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