Major Changes in States' Photo ID Laws Ahead of Election

PHOTO: A voter filling out her ballot at the Eleanor Roosvelt high school polling site, on April 26, 2016, in Greenbelt, Maryland.PlayThe Washington Post/Getty Images
WATCH Major Changes in States' Photo ID Laws Ahead of Election

Two key court decisions handed down Wednesday in two states had opposite effects on the ability of voters to cast their ballots in the fall.

In Texas, a state considered by civil rights activists to have some of the most restrictive voter photo ID laws in the country, a judge agreed to a proposal that will allow citizens without sufficient photo ID to still vote with a regular ballot.

Now, Texan voters who don’t have one of seven types of approved state-issued photo IDs will need to sign a declaration saying that there was a “reasonable impediment” to getting one, and then they will be able to show an alternate form of identification to cast a regular ballot.

Meanwhile, a similar policy was already in place in Wisconsin, but that measure was revoked just hours after the Texas agreement was reached.

The legal activity in the two states did not come as a shock to Jennifer Clark, council in the democracy program at the Brennan Center, a non-partisan policy group that focuses on voting and judicial rights. “There isn’t much that’s surprising now considering all the litigation that we've seen surrounding all of these photo ID laws,” she told ABC News.

PHOTO: This map shows the eight states where the Brennan Center says has strict photo ID laws, and the three lighter-shaded states are states that had passed strict photo ID laws but have since had those blocked or mitigated by court. Courtesy of the Brennan Center
This map shows the eight states where the Brennan Center says has strict photo ID laws, and the three lighter-shaded states are states that had passed strict photo ID laws but have since had those blocked or mitigated by court.

Latest in a Long String of Cases

The strict photo ID requirements have been controversial in Texas for five years now. The seven forms of ID -- which include driver’s licenses, passports, military IDs with photos, handgun licenses and other state-issued licenses -- were specified in 2011, with the law being passed by a Republican-controlled state legislature and the state’s Republican governor.

Critics of the law, including judicial rights groups like the Brennan Center, which is serving as the plaintiff's attorneys in the Texas case that reached an agreement Wednesday, take issue with the fact that Texas does not allow student IDs from state universities and other provisions that are accepted in other states.

"Our democratic process depends on ensuring that eligible citizens can cast their votes without undue discriminatory hurdles," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement following the agreement.

"The court’s interim remedy order is a very important step toward a process designed to provide that opportunity for hundreds of thousands of eligible Texans," she said.

Rolling Back Provisions in Wisconsin

A similar legal battle has been ongoing in Wisconsin for about two years, and during that process, a judge had approved an “affidavit option” where someone without a photo ID could get an exception to the law and proceed to vote.

The difference between that option and the one that was approved yesterday in Texas is that the Texas voters would still have to provide some form of ID to back up their declaration, whereas Wisconsin voters wouldn’t.

On Wednesday, a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge issued a stay order, meaning that the “affidavit option” is not going to be available until the entire case is heard.

Reid Magney, the public information officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told ABC News “we don’t know what the timing will be” on the appeal, so it is unknown if the stay order will remain in place for the November election.

Clark said that though the stay order is not permanent, the court’s decision is an indication “that they were going to strike it down completely.”

Far From the Only Ones

Wisconsin and Texas are only the latest states to reach new decisions in recent weeks. Similar decisions that either got rid of the state’s photo ID requirement, like in North Carolina, or called on states to offer declarations of identity for people without photo IDs, like in North Dakota, were made in the last month.

The flurry of activity comes as little surprise for Clark.

“I think that it’s clear based on the amount of activity ... that courts feel the pressure of deciding these things with enough advanced notice so that states can get the electoral mechanisms in order,” Clark said.

She added: “I don’t think courts feel comfortable waiting until the fall to make these kinds of decisions.”