Voting Law Changes: Election Update

October 28, 2012

The dramatic national effort to restrict Americans’ voting rights was met this year with an equally dramatic pushback by courts, citizens, the Department of Justice, and farsighted public officials. What does a survey of the landscape one week before Election Day 2012 now show? Strikingly, nearly all the worst new laws to cut back on voting have been blocked, blunted, repealed, or postponed. Laws in 14 states were reversed or weakened. As a result, new restrictions will affect far fewer than the 5 million citizens we predicted last year. For the overwhelming majority of those whose rights were most at risk, the ability to vote will not be at issue on November 6th.

 

 

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Introduction

Our nation was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” To fulfill this promise, our voting system should be free, fair, and accessible to all eligible citizens.

A year ago, the Brennan Center issued a study documenting the recent and abrupt reversal of America’s long tradition of expanding voting access. Without national notice, legislators pressed scores of new bills that would make it harder for eligible Americans to vote. This report helped spur much-needed public scrutiny of these laws and their possible impact on our elections.

We estimated that these new laws — which included onerous voter ID laws, cutbacks to early voting and community-based registration drives — “could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” That number reflected the sheer quantity and scope of restrictive legislation already then enacted in 14 states.

The drive to curb voting continued beyond October. All told, since January 2011, at least 180 bills were introduced in 41 states. Ultimately, 25 new laws and two executive actions were adopted in 19 states. These states represented 231 electoral votes, or 85 percent of the total needed to win the presidency. This amounted to the biggest threat to voting rights in decades.

Today, the reality is very different, and far better for voters. The dramatic national effort to restrict Americans’ voting rights was met with an equally dramatic pushback by courts, citizens, the Department of Justice, and farsighted public officials.

What does a survey of the landscape one week before Election Day 2012 now show? Strikingly, nearly all the worst new laws to cut back on voting have been blocked, blunted, repealed, or postponed. Laws in 14 states were reversed or weakened. As a result, new restrictions will affect far fewer than the 5 million citizens we predicted last year. For the overwhelming majority of those whose rights were most at risk, the ability to vote will not be at issue on November 6th.

At the same time, the fight will continue well past November. Courts will examine laws in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Politicians will introduce more bills to limit voting rights. Most significantly, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely hear two major cases that could substantially cut back on legal protections for voters. It has already agreed to hear a challenge, brought by Arizona, that could curb federal power to protect voting rights. The Court likely will also hear a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which has proven to be a key protection against discriminatory laws, including many of the ones passed in 2011-12.

This upcoming legal battle unfolds against the backdrop of the recent struggle over voting rights — and in the wake of a clear demonstration of the vital need for strong laws to protect democracy.


Voting Law Changes: Election Update