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High court action on voting aims to avoid chaos

•  National News     updated  2014/10/13 16:23



In seemingly contradictory voting-rights actions just a month before November's elections, the Supreme Court has allowed new Republican-inspired restrictions to remain in force in North Carolina and Ohio while blocking Wisconsin's voter identification law.

But there's a thread of consistency: In each case, the court appears to be seeking a short-term outcome that is the least disruptive for the voting process.

Another test of the court's outlook on voter ID laws could come from Texas, where the state is promising to appeal a ruling that struck down its strict law as unconstitutional racial discrimination.

None of the orders issued by the high court in recent days is a final ruling on the constitutionality of the laws. The orders are all about timing — whether the laws can be used in this year's elections — while the justices defer consideration of their validity.

In some ways, these disputes over the mechanics of voting are like others that crop up frequently just before elections as part of last-minute struggles by partisans to influence who can vote.

Republican lawmakers say the measures are needed to reduce voter fraud. Democrats contend they are thinly veiled attempts to keep eligible voters, many of them minorities supportive of Democrats, away from the polls.

Court rulings at various levels have also revealed partisan divisions. Most judges who voted to uphold the restrictive laws or allow them to take effect while the legal fights play out are Republican appointees. Most of those voting to strike down the laws or prevent them from being enforced were appointed by Democratic presidents. That is true even at the Supreme Court.

The high court has laid out one area of agreement: a general rule discouraging courts in general from letting potentially disruptive changes take effect at the last minute.

"The idea that courts should not impose a new set of voting rules just before an election is not a new one," said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine law school.

This year, that idea appears to have led the Supreme Court to outcomes that on the surface appear to be inconsistent, Hasen said. One problem in reading too much into the orders is that they were issued with little explanation.

But in each case, the court took issue with lower court rulings that would have changed the rules too close to an election, Hasen said.
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