Lower courts have crafted elec­tion rules that may be a crit­i­cal fac­tor in Novem­ber

- Richard Wolf @richard­j­wolf USA TO­DAY US Elections · U.S. News · US Politics · Discrimination · Politics · Elections · Human Rights · Society · Barack Obama · U.S. Supreme Court · North Carolina · University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill · Texas · Michigan · Wisconsin · Republican Party (United States) · Democratic Party (United States) · White House · Alliance · Ohio · Virginia · Kansas · North Dakota · University of Chicago Law School · University of Chicago · Bill Clinton · Hillary Clinton · Ronald Reagan · George H. W. Bush · George W. Bush · United States of America · U.S. Court of Appeals · Arizona · Maricopa County, AZ · Georgia · Nan Aron · Alliance for Justice · Dale · American Civil Liberties Union

Pres­i­dent Obama has been un­able to fill a seat on the Supreme Court for six months, but his lower court ap­point­ments could help swing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to his cho­sen suc­ces­sor.

Judges named by Obama to fed­eral ap­pel­late and district courts over­see­ing North Carolina, Texas, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin have in re­cent months voted to strike down restric­tions on vot­ing im­posed by Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tures. In Michi­gan and North Carolina, his Supreme Court nom­i­nees helped block ef­forts to re­store the restric­tions for this fall’s elec­tions.

The rul­ings could help hun­dreds of thou­sands of vot­ers — mostly mi­nori­ties who vote Demo­cratic — get to the polls in Novem­ber by re­mov­ing im­ped­i­ments such as photo IDs and mak­ing it eas­ier to reg­is­ter and vote.

“These de­ci­sions cer­tainly de­mon­strate the crit­i­cal im­por­tance of hav­ing a Demo­crat in the White House,” says Nan Aron, pres­i­dent of the lib­eral Al­liance for Jus­tice. “These laws are trans­par­ent in in­tent, to ha­rass and sup­press the vote in states across the coun­try.”

In states where Obama’s judges have had less in­flu­ence in vot­ing rights cases — such as Ohio and Vir­ginia — courts have left restric­tions on vot­ing in place.

The le­gal skir­mishes, still play­ing out in many states, will have far more in­flu­ence in de­cid­ing who wins the White House than the pub­lic opin­ion polls that com­mand far more at­ten­tion.

They will de­ter­mine the rules for the elec­tion in key bat­tle­ground states, along with oth­ers far from the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates’ radar, such as Kansas and North Dakota.

Civil rights groups fight­ing the state laws in court say their win­ning record stems from prov­ing that photo ID laws and other lim­its dis­crim­i­nate — some­times in­ten­tion­ally — against mi­nor­ity vot­ers.

“I don’t think this can be at­trib­uted to the fact that Obama’s been ap­point­ing judges for the last seven and a half years,” says Dale Ho, di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union’s vot­ing rights project.

But Ni­cholas Stephanopo­u­los, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of law at the Univer­sity of Chicago Law School spe­cial­iz­ing in elec­tions and vot­ing rights, says judges tend to view the cases “through ide­o­log­i­cal and par­ti­san prisms.”

At the fed­eral ap­peals court level, those prisms have shifted left since Obama came to of­fice. While only one fed­eral cir­cuit court had a ma­jor­ity of judges named by Demo­cratic pres­i­dents in Jan­uary 2009, nine do now.

The per­cent­age of ap­pel­late judges named by Democrats has risen from 39% to 55% dur­ing that pe­riod.

So far this year, judges nom­i­nated by Obama and Bill Clin­ton have sided with civil rights groups and Demo­cratic lawyers ev­ery time. Those named by Repub­li­can pres­i­dents Ron­ald Rea­gan, Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Ge­orge W. Bush have split their votes.

In North Carolina, the na­tion’s most far-reach­ing set of vot­ing restric­tions was up­held by a Repub­li­can-named district court judge be­fore be­ing struck down by a three-judge, all-Demo­cratic panel of the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 4th Cir­cuit. That court had four judges ap­pointed by Democrats when Obama came to of­fice in 2009; it now has nine.

In Texas, a district court judge named by Obama struck down the coun­try’s strictest photo ID law. The cus­tom­ar­ily con­ser­va­tive 5th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals agreed by a 9-6 vote, with all five Demo­cratic nom­i­nees in the ma­jor­ity. In 2009, the court had 13 judges named by Repub­li­cans, four by Democrats.

Michi­gan’s ef­fort to elim­i­nate straight-ticket vot­ing, used more of­ten by African-Amer­i­can vot­ers than oth­ers, was blocked in fed­eral district court by an Obama nom­i­nee and in the 6th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals by an all-Demo­cratic, three-judge panel.

District court judges named by Obama and Clin­ton in Wis­con­sin ruled against sep­a­rate el­e­ments of that state’s vot­ing restric­tions. One of the rul­ings was over­turned by an all-Repub­li­can panel of the 7th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals.

In Ohio, a district court judge named by Ge­orge W. Bush agreed with vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates that the state’s elim­i­na­tion of “Golden Week” — when vot­ers were able to reg­is­ter and vote to­gether — was dis­crim­i­na­tory. But a 6th Cir­cuit panel voted 2-1 along party lines to re­store the re­stric­tion, and the Supreme Court on Tues­day re­fused to block it from tak­ing ef­fect.

In Vir­ginia, where a Repub­li­can-nom­i­nated district court judge up­held the state’s photo ID law, a panel of the 4th Cir­cuit ap­peals court is sched­uled to hear the case next week.

As was the case in Texas, vot­ing restric­tions in Kansas and North Dakota have been turned aside with the help of Repub­li­can-ap­pointed judges.

Both those states nev­er­the­less are con­sid­ered solidly Repub­li­can in Novem­ber.

In Ari­zona, Democrats are chal­leng­ing the state’s rules for col­lect­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lots and count­ing votes cast in the wrong precinct.

A set­tle­ment was reached with Mari­copa County re­gard­ing the num­ber of polling places needed in Novem­ber to re­duce the risk of long lines that marred the state’s March pri­mary.

And in Ge­or­gia, a coali­tion of civil rights groups went to court Wed­nes­day chal­leng­ing the state’s voter regis­tra­tion rules.

The Supreme Court it­self is partly re­spon­si­ble for many of the state le­gal skir­mishes. In 2013, it struck down a key part of the Vot­ing Rights Act that had re­quired states with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tion to get fed­eral per­mis­sion be­fore chang­ing vot­ing pro­ce­dures.

The court’s rul­ings on a state-by-state ba­sis merely set­tle what rules will be in place for the up­com­ing elec­tion; the full cases con­tinue to be fought out.

This year, the jus­tices have ruled against restric­tions in North Carolina and Michi­gan while up­hold­ing Ohio’s. In 2014, they let restric­tions stand in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas, while block­ing them in Wis­con­sin.

 ?? MATT YORK, AP ?? The could hun­dreds rul­ing­shelp of thou­sandsvot­ers — of mostly mi­nori­ties who vote Demo­cratic — get to the polls in Novem­ber.
MATT YORK, AP The could hun­dreds rul­ing­shelp of thou­sandsvot­ers — of mostly mi­nori­ties who vote Demo­cratic — get to the polls in Novem­ber.
 ?? SOURCE Al­liance for Jus­tice Ac­tion Cam­paign RA­MON PADILLA, USA TO­DAY ??
SOURCE Al­liance for Jus­tice Ac­tion Cam­paign RA­MON PADILLA, USA TO­DAY
 ?? EVAN VUCCI, AP ?? Pres­i­dent Obama nom­i­nates judges to the Court of Ap­peals for the D.C. Cir­cuit in 2013.
EVAN VUCCI, AP Pres­i­dent Obama nom­i­nates judges to the Court of Ap­peals for the D.C. Cir­cuit in 2013.

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