As Democrats and Republicans prepare to fight for votes in the fall general election, recent court decisions in three battleground states illustrate how each side is maneuvering for the best possible legal position to achieve its goals — with Democrats hoping to expand voting to as many citizens as possible and Republicans working to limit it.
What happened: In a reversal, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday that Floridians who had completed sentences for felonies would have to pay fines and fees before being allowed to vote.
The ruling overturned a recent decision by a federal judge who said that forcing people with serious criminal convictions to pay court fines and fees before they could register to vote was akin to an unconstitutional poll tax.
The new ruling is the latest in a legal battle that played out after Florida voters passed an amendment to the State Constitution in 2018 that ended the disenfranchisement of those convicted of felonies, except for murder and sexual offenses.
After that vote, the Republican-controlled State Legislature passed a law in 2019 requiring former felons to pay fees and fines before having their voting rights restored.
Who is affected: An expert for the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups testified that more than 774,000 former felons in Florida who had served their sentences had legal financial obligations.
What happens now? The civil rights groups representing the former felons pledged to keep fighting and could appeal to the Supreme Court. But the court has already sided with the state of Florida once in the case, rejecting an emergency application to lift the appeals court’s stay while the outcome was pending.
How the ruling might affect the November election: The 2018 amendment passed by voters appeared to set the stage for one of the largest infusions to Florida’s voter rolls in recent history, which could have had a big impact on the state’s elections, which are often decided by razor-thin margins. The 2018 Senate race was decided by just over 10,000 votes, and President Trump carried Florida by roughly 113,000 votes in 2016.
But the appeals court ruling makes it unlikely that this will be the election where hundreds of thousands of people who had committed felonies became voters.
What happened: The State Supreme Court in Wisconsin, which has a conservative 4-3 majority, halted the printing of absentee ballots on Friday as it sorted through legal challenges from third-party candidates.
The ruling came after Howie Hawkins, the Green party presidential candidate, asked the court to weigh in on the Wisconsin Elections Commission’s decision to keep him off the ballot when commissioners deadlocked on whether he had submitted proper paperwork.
Wisconsin elections are decentralized, so county clerks are unable to complete production of ballots before the Sept. 16 deadline for distributing them to municipalities. They also face the possibility of having to reprint millions of ballots, which could lead to confusion and delays for November.
Who is affected: Every voter in Wisconsin who was planning to vote by mail, but those living overseas or serving in the military could be the most severely affected, as those ballots need to be sent out early to account for longer delivery times.
As of this week, 1,013,458 voters had requested absentee ballots in Wisconsin for the November election, according to data from the Wisconsin Elections Commission. The commission told the court that roughly 73,000 ballots had already been sent out to voters for November and that “it is possible that tens of thousands more ballots may already be sent by the time this Court issues a decision.”
What happens now? Election officials will have to wait for the court to rule on Mr. Hawkins’s challenge before moving ahead with printing and distributing ballots to municipalities by the deadline.
How it might affect the November election: Election officials across the state were already planning to work through the weekend to meet the enormous demand for absentee ballots. Having to halt that work and perhaps print new ballots will only make meeting the demand harder and, in some cases, perhaps impossible.
But if the court rules that the ballots must be reprinted, the Wisconsin Elections Commission said, there could be “massive confusion” and “chaos in the ballot counting process,” particularly if some voters had already returned their ballots.
What happened: Two court rulings this week in Texas affected mail voting during the pandemic, just the latest rulings in a flurry of similar cases across the country.
First, on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit sided with the state’s Republican leadership, ruling that the state may keep in place an age limit — 65 and older — on voting by mail. Democrats had filed suit to eliminate the age requirement, claiming that it discriminated against younger voters.
Then, on Friday, a state judge in Houston sided with Democrats, ruling that the Harris County clerk, Chris Hollins, could send absentee ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county, the state’s most populous, along with an explanation of the state’s eligibility requirements.
Who is affected: The federal case potentially affects every Texas voter under 65 who wants to vote by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic but is blocked by the age limit. Even though the law also permits mail voting for those with a disability or illness, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in May that the risk of contracting coronavirus was not in itself a valid reason to use mail-in ballots.
What happens now? Neither dispute is likely to end soon. The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, appealed the Harris County ruling on Saturday and said he was hoping for a reversal this week. The Texas Democratic Party vowed to continue fighting the mail ballot age limit, with the case potentially headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had in June denied an emergency request to reverse the age limit. But it is not clear that a decision will come before the election. The deadline to request a mail ballot in Texas is Oct. 23.
How it might affect the November election: Texas Democrats have said this is the year they hope to flip the state to blue, citing a sharp increase in voter registration in the state, the picking up in 2018 of two congressional seats that had been held by Republicans and the competitive 2018 Senate challenge to Ted Cruz in which Beto O’Rourke came closer to toppling a Republican incumbent than any Democrat had in 40 years.