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Monday, December 15, 2014

(Mis)trusting States To Run Elections

The Supreme Court is probably going to hear another voter ID case within the next year or so -- from Wisconsin or Texas -- or different case involving a state's administration of an election, such as one about North Carolina's very restrictive voting law.  I bet the Court will largely defer to a state in its election-related processes and will probably uphold whatever law it reviews.  But that is unfortunate, because it is both doctrinally wrong and practically dangerous. 

As I recount in a new article, forthcoming next month in the Washington University Law Review, the Court too readily defers to a generic state interest in "election integrity" when reviewing the constitutionality of a state's election practice.  Previously, a state had to provide a specific rationale for the law, especially under a higher level of scrutiny.  Now, however, so long as a state says "election integrity," the Court does not question that justification, taking it at face value as an important governmental interest.  But often the state is not really trying to achieve election integrity, at least not principally.  There are often partisan motivations behind an election regulation.  How else can one explain a law, such as North Carolina's, that is passed on a party-line vote and will effect only the minority party's supporters?  Contrary to the approach to state election rules, the Court has closely scrutinized Congress's rationale for an election regulation, refusing to defer to legislative judgment.

Moreover, the Court has said that election litigation should proceed only through as-applied challenges, which requires piecemeal adjudication, yet it has invalidated several federal election laws on their face.  Requiring only as-applied litigation provides a procedural mechanism to defer to a state's election processes.

After the jump I explain the problems with this approach. 

Defering to states substantitively on their interests in an election law and procedurally through as-applied challenges is constitutionally suspect, especially because the Court does not analyze federal election rules in the same manner.  This mode of analysis ignores the fact that the U.S. Constitution, through the Elections Clause (Art. I, Sec. 4), gives Congress an explicit oversight role in state election rules.  In addition, the various amendments relating to voting provide that Congress may "enforce" those constitutional mandates.

The deference is also dangerous.  States know that their laws will not receive meaningful scrutiny and that they need only tie a new rule to "election integrity" in the abstract to pass the first prong of the constitutional test (the state interest prong).  This emboldens state legislatures to enact laws with partisan gains in mind because they can gloss over that point by raising the "election integrity" mantra.  But partisan motiviations should play no role in how we structure our elections.

The Court should not defer so readily to a state's election process.  Instead, the Court should apply a meaningful form of strict scrutiny review to laws that infringe upon the constitutional right to vote and require both Congress and legislatures to justify their laws with a stronger rationale than just election integrity, especially if there is an inference that the legislature really had partisanship in mind.

Here is the abstract of the article, for those who want more on this argument:

Current Supreme Court doctrine defers too readily to states’ voting systems. In the process, the Court has removed Congress from the elections business. The Court has done so not explicitly but through two judicial maneuvers, one substantive and the other procedural, that place tremendous trust in states: lowering the bar for the state interest prong of the constitutional analysis, and forbidding facial challenges to state rules on election administration. The Court has credited any state assertion of “election integrity,” even if that is not the actual impetus for the law under review. It also will reject a facial challenge to a state voting rule, thereby leaving the law in place until a plaintiff has gathered actual evidence of the law’s impact on particular voters. The Court has not treated Congress the same, demonstrating its willingness to invalidate a federal voting rule on its face even when Congress has asserted a more detailed rationale for the law. This Article uncovers this approach to constitutional challenges to voting regulations. It also explains why this current jurisprudence is both wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government significant scope to promulgate election regulations, and states are subordinate to Congress under our constitutional structure. It is dangerous because the current deferential approach emboldens states to pass partisan-based laws with an eye toward affecting elections, and all a state needs to say to justify a new law is that it is seeking to ensure “election integrity.” The Court should reverse this current jurisprudence by requiring states to provide a more detailed justification for an election law and by allowing broader use of facial challenges to invalidate state voting laws, when necessary, before they are implemented. Voting, as a fundamental right, deserves robust protection from the courts. Scrutinizing state election laws more closely will help to achieve this worthy goal.

Comments are welcome! 

Posted by Josh Douglas on December 15, 2014 at 02:10 PM in Article Spotlight, Constitutional thoughts, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

"...the Court too readily defers to a generic state interest in "election integrity" when reviewing the constitutionality of a state's election practice. ..."


Riiiiiiiiiiggggghhhhhhhhht. IIRC, Scalia also pulled the BvG 'this doesn't apply to anything else' principle that overwhelming votes were suspicious.[1]

It's not honestly deniable by now that at least four justices are largely partisan hacks.

[1] Does not apply to 9-0 SCOTUS rulings, the Patriot Act, any jury voting unanimously to convict, or anything that the right likes.

Posted by: Barry | Dec 16, 2014 8:35:41 PM

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