The last two weeks were an orgy of good news for voting rights advocates. It began with a federal court decision effectively restoring voting rights to Wisconsin voters disenfranchised by the state’s voter ID law. Then, the full United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — one of the most conservative federal courts in the nation — struck down a similar law in Texas. Then another federal appeals court tore up several major provisions of North Carolina’s omnibus voter suppression law.
And then, to cap off two weeks of action on voting rights, another federal judge in Wisconsinhalted a raft of voter suppression measures late in the day on Friday. “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities,” Judge James Peterson scolded the state lawmakers behind these measures.
To be sure, some of these voting rights victories still stand on tenuous ground. The two Wisconsin decisions were handed down by trial judges, and they will appeal to the Seventh Circuit, a court where judges who have previously expressed sympathy with modern day voting rights lawsuits hold a bare majority. Because most federal appeals court cases are handled by randomly selected panels of three judges, and because the makeup of a three-judge panel can potentially impact the makeup of a larger panel of judges who could be called upon the hear the case in the future, the fate of these Wisconsin decisions is likely to rest on which judges ultimately are assigned to hear the appeals.
Nevertheless, the judicial landscape facing voting rights advocates is massively more favorable than the landscape they faced in the 2014 election, when conservatives still controlled a majority on the Supreme Court. If Justice Antonin Scalia were still alive today, North Carolina advocates in particular would be biting their nails fearing that their state’s anti-voter law would soon be reinstated. Without a conservative Supreme Court majority, by contrast, the appeals court’s decision striking much of the North Carolina law is all but certain to be the final word — at least until after the election.