Surprise! The Roberts Court Just Halted A Voter Suppression Law

CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

In a brief, one paragraph order handed down Thursday evening, the Supreme Court just halted Wisconsin’s voter ID law. Although a federal trial court halted the law earlier this year, a conservative panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reinstated it last month. Under Thursday’s order from the Supreme Court, the voter ID law will now almost certainly be suspended for the 2014 election, although the order does not indicate whether the justices are likely to strike the law down permanently at a later date.

Although the Supreme Court’s order does not explain why the Court halted the law, a short dissenting opinion by Justice Samuel Alito provides a window into the Court’s reasoning. Alito begins his dissent by admitting that “[t]here is a colorable basis for the Court’s decision due to the proximity of the upcoming general election.” In a 2006 case called Purcell v. Gonzalez, the Supreme Court explained that judges should be reluctant to issue orders affecting a state’s election law as an election approaches. “Court orders affecting elections,” according to Purcell, “can themselves result in voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls. As an election draws closer, that risk will increase.” It is likely that the six justices who agreed to halt the Wisconsin law relied on Purcell in reaching this decision.

Only two justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, joined Alito’s dissent. Both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four more liberal justices in the majority.

Thursday’s order halting the Wisconsin voter ID law may also provide some explanation for why seven justices voted to reinstate a voter suppression law in North Carolina on Wednesday. If Purcell‘s fear of changes to election law close to an election is the rule, then that rule should apply no matter whose ox is gored.

Voter ID laws, which require voters to show a photo ID before they can cast a ballot, are a common method of voter suppression. As ThinkProgress explained shortly after the Seventh Circuit reinstated Wisconsin’s law,

[a]lthough voter ID laws’ supporters often claim they are needed to prevent such fraud, in-person voter fraud is so rare as to be virtually non-existent. A study of the approximately 3 million votes cast in Wisconsin during the 2004 election, for example, found just seven cases of fraud — and none of those cases would have been prevented by a voter ID law.

Voter ID does, however, disproportionately target low-income voters, minorities and young voters, all of whom tend to prefer Democrats to Republicans. According to Judge Lynn Adelman’s opinion striking down the Wisconsin law, 9 percent of registered voters lack the ID necessary to vote under the Wisconsin law.

In another, unrelated case, a federal court in Texas struck down that state’s voter ID law on Thursday evening as well.