How Much of a Difference Did New Voting Restrictions Make in Yesterday's Close Races?

November 5, 2014
Election voting 2014

Crossposted at BillMoyers.com

The Republican electoral sweep in yesterday’s elections has put an end to speculation over whether new laws making it harder to vote in 21 states would help determine control of the Senate this year. But while we can breathe a sigh of relief that the electoral outcomes won’t be mired in litigation, a quick look at the numbers shows that in several key races, the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement.

North Carolina

In the North Carolina Senate race, state house speaker Thom Tillis beat Senator Kay Hagen by a margin of 1.7 percent, or about 48,000 votes.

At the same time, North Carolina’s voters were, for the first time, voting under one of the harshest new election laws in the country — a law that Tillis helped to craft. Among other changes, the law slashed seven early voting days, eliminated same-day registration, and prohibited voting outside a voter’s home precinct — all forms of voting especially popular among African Americans. While it is too early to assess the impact of the law this year, the Election Protection hotline and other voter protection volunteers reported what appeared to be widespread problems both with voter registrations and with voters being told they were in the wrong precinct yesterday.

Some numbers from recent elections suggest that the magnitude of the problem may not be far from the margin of victory: In the last midterms in 2010, 200,000 voters cast ballots during the early voting days now cut, according to a recent court decision. In 2012, 700,000 voted during those days, including more than a quarter of all African-Americans who voted that year. In 2012, 100,000 North Carolinians, almost a one-third of whom were African-American, voted using same-day registration, which was not available this year. And 7,500 voters cast their ballots outside of their home precincts that year.

Kansas

In the Kansas governor’s race, Governor Sam Brownback beat back challenger Paul Davis by a margin of 2.8 percent, or less than 33,000 votes.

But Kansans faced two new voting restrictions this year — a strict photo ID law that was put into effect right before the 2012 election, and a new documentary proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration.

What was the impact this year? We know from the Kansas secretary of state that more than 24,000 Kansans tried to register this year but their registrations were held in “suspense” because they failed to present the documentary proof of citizenship now required by state law. And while we do not yet have the data regarding the impact of the voter ID requirement this year, a recent study by the independent Government Accountability Office found that Kansas’s voter ID law reduced turnout by approximately 2 percent in 2012. (GAO also found that Tennessee’s new law reduced turnout by up to 3 percent.) If the law’s effect was similar this year, it would mean that turnout was about 17,000 voters lower than it otherwise would have been. And keep in mind that the number of Americans that don’t have government-issued photo IDs that would be accepted under new laws is closer to 11 percent. In short, the margin of victory in Kansas looks perilously close to the margin of disenfranchisement.

Virginia

In Virginia, Senator Mark Warner eked out a victory over challenger Ed Gillespie by only 0.6 percent of the vote, or just over 12,000 votes.

Like in Kansas, voters in Virginia faced a strict new photo ID requirement this year. According to the Virginia Board of Elections, 198,000 “active Virginia voters” did not have acceptable ID this year. While there are no studies yet on the impact on turnout in Virginia, Nate Silver estimates, based on academic studies, that in general such laws reduce turnout by about 2.4 percent. If that were applied to Virginia this year, it would amount to a reduction in turnout by more than 52,000 voters. That far exceeds the margin of victory here.

Florida

The Florida governor’s race was decided by only a 1.2 percent margin, with Governor Rick Scott narrowly beating former Governor Charlie Crist by just under 72,000 votes.

Florida has passed a host of new voting restrictions over the past few years. Perhaps the most significant for this election was a decision by Scott and his clemency board to make it virtually impossible for the more than 1.3 million Floridians who were formerly convicted of crimes but have done their time and paid their debt to society to have their voting rights restored. Under Florida’s law, the harshest in the country, one in three African-American men is essentially permanently disenfranchised. Ironically, Scott had rolled back rights that were expanded under Governor Crist, who had established a path for people with past convictions to more easily get their voting rights restored. Under that process, more than 150,000 citizens had their rights restored before Scott changed the rules. This is part of a pattern this year of candidates benefiting from voting restrictions they helped to pass.

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It will likely be months before we have the data to assess the full impact of new voting restrictions on yesterday’s elections. But we already do know that their impact is far more than the number of hot races they could have turned.

It is little solace to the more than 600,000 registered voters in Texas who could not vote this year because they lack IDs the state will accept that the governor’s race was decided by more than 600,000 votes. For one thing, there are far more races — from state legislator to justice of the peace — that affect voters’ day-to-day lives and that could have been impacted by those lost votes. But more importantly, those citizens — a number of whom were long-time voters who were turned away from the polls this year — were denied their basic right of citizenship, their ability to hold their politicians accountable, and their ability to join their friends and family to have a say over what happens in their communities. The dignitary harm comes through loud and clear when you read their stories.

Hopefully those stories — along with the big numbers — will help stem the recent tide of voting restrictions. The integrity of our elections is at stake.

(Photo: AP)