Voting Newsletter: Victories for Voting Rights

September 12, 2012

Welcome to the Brennan Center's voting newsletter, the most comprehensive summary of all the latest developments affecting voting. Sign up for all Brennan Center newsletters here.

Latest Developments

Voting Fight Continues, Restrictions Pushed Back

With the election just two months away, a series of legal battles could determine who can and cannot vote, The New York Times reported Monday. Seven different court rulings voided restrictive voting measures in August, including laws in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

But the fight continues in a number of other key states. Tomorrow, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the state’s voter ID law. There is an ongoing dispute in Ohio over early voting hours and the counting of provisional ballots, with both cases heading to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. And early voting is still an issue in Florida.

Election experts worry these disputes could delay a final tally of the votes in any tight race.

“In any of these states there is the potential for disaster,” the Center’s Lawrence Norden told The Times. “You have close elections and the real possibility that people will say their votes were not counted when they should have been. That’s the nightmare scenario for the day after the election.”  

For more on the legal fight over voting rights and the rejection of restrictive laws, read The Wall Street Journal and Time. See complete state updates below.

Electoral Dysfunction: A Documentary

This fall, political humorist Mo Rocca unveils a new documentary, “Electoral Dysfunction,” where he sets out on a road trip to see how voting works — and doesn’t work — in America. In the film, which features the Brennan Center’s Wendy Weiser and Lawrence Norden, Rocca searches for the Electoral College, investigates the heated battle over voter ID and voter fraud, and explores the case of a former felon who was sentenced to 10 years in prison — for the crime of voting.

The film will premiere in New York City on September 21st and will broadcast on PBS in October. The Brennan Center will also host a screening in the coming weeks. See the documentary featured in The New York Times Op-Doc section.

State Updates

Colorado – After sending letters to nearly 4,000 voters he suspected were non-citizens, and checking the status of 1,400 of those voters through a federal database, Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) now says he’s identified 141 voters registered illegally, or just .004 percent of Colorado voters. The secretary sent the names to county clerks with instructions on how to challenge their votes. Read more from the Brennan Center’s Jonathan Brater. Also read about how Boulder County’s ballot system could be penetrated so voters and their choices can be traced.

Florida – A federal judge permanently blocked a law restricting voter registration drives. Registration rates dropped significantly after the law went into effect. The restrictions may have led groups to adopt new methods of registering voters, such as using direct mail and sophisticated data mining. Meanwhile, the Justice Department accepted Florida’s revised early voting plan for the five counties covered by the Voting Rights Act.

Iowa – A legislative committee held a hearing Tuesday on the secretary of state’s effort to purge voters from the rolls.

Minnesota – Campaigns over a proposed voter ID constitutional amendment are heating up. The state could spend $10 million, or even more than $36 million, to educate voters about the requirement and provide free IDs, according to estimates. The Secretary of State’s office says 215,000 registered voters, or about 7 percent of all voters, either lack a photo ID or do not have one with their current address. Read more on how the amendment could change Minnesota’s election system.

New Hampshire – The Justice Department approved the state’s voter ID law, which will be in effect for the November election. The state’s Tuesday primary served as a dry run for the law.

Ohio – Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) dominated the news in the last two weeks. First, a federal judge restored early voting days for the weekend before the election. Husted responded by barring counties from setting early voting hours. Then, after the judge rebuked Husted for defying his ruling, the secretary reversed his directive and asked the court to freeze the decision until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit hears the appeal. Two Democratic election supervisors are also suing Husted after he fired them in August.

Despite the early voting controversy, Husted won kudos from the Brennan Center’s Lawrence Norden for issuing ballots that have clear design, layout, and instructions. Husted is also sending every registered voter an absentee ballot application, which “has drawn both widespread, bipartisan praise over further easing of the voting process and concerns over potential downsides.” Read more on Ohio’s controversial secretary of state at The Nation and The American Prospect.

Pennsylvania – The state Supreme Court is scheduled to review Pennsylvania’s voter ID law tomorrow. The six-member court is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Read more here, here, and here. The Philadelphia Inquirer urged the high court to use the federal court decision blocking Texas’s voter ID law as a guideline in deciding the matter. “The Supreme Court should step up where the Commonwealth Court failed and guarantee voters their rights,” the Inquirer opined. “At the very least, the court should delay implementation of this law until after the Nov. 6 election so the government can ensure it isn't disenfranchising its citizens.” Read more on how the law could affect Pennsylvania voters here, here, and here.

South Carolina – Live testimony in the state’s voter ID trial came to a close at the end of August. The judges looked at the law’s racial impact. They also focused on how South Carolina election officials would interpret the law’s provision allowing citizens to vote without an ID if they had a “reasonable impediment” to getting one. “But exactly what that means — and who decides — changed throughout the trial, leaving even the judges seemingly exasperated,” reported NPR’s Pam Fessler. The court will hear closing arguments on September 24th.

Tennessee – The city of Memphis sued the state claiming its voter ID law “will disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters.”

Texas – A federal court rejected the state’s restrictive voter ID law, which could have hurt hundreds of thousands of minority voters without ID. Attorney General Greg Abbott said he will appeal the case to the Supreme Court. “Texas might face a tough road” if it does appeal the decision, according to Lyle Denniston, dean of Supreme Court reporters. Doug Chapin at the University of Minnesota said the case highlights “the coming battle” over the Voting Rights Act. In a separate case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit froze an earlier decision blocking Texas’s restrictions on voter registration drives.

Virginia – A new voter ID law, combined with a “possible deluge of provisional ballots in a high-stakes election,” could cause a “lingering election nightmare,” the Associated Press reported.

Wisconsin – After two judges blocked the state’s voter ID law, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked the state Supreme Court to bypass the normal appeals process, combine the two cases, and restore the requirement. Voting rights groups that fought to block the ID law asked the high court to wait for the appeals court to review the law. In other news, voters can now use smartphone data to register to vote.

And don’t forget our up-to-date online summary of all pending and passed voting laws.

New Data and Research

Voter Challengers

Since 2011, a wave of restrictive laws has threatened access to the voting booth for millions of Americans. But little attention has been given to the 46 states that have laws that allow private citizens to challenge the eligibility of prospective voters, either on or before Election Day. The Brennan Center released a new report examining the laws that give rise to citizen-led challenge efforts and the difficulties such efforts create for both voters and election officials. Demos and Common Cause also released a study on challengers. Read more here and at The Nation.

Media Round-Up

  • The Diane Rehm Show looked at voting law changes and the 2012 presidential race. The segment featured UC-Irvine Law Professor Richard Hasen, who appeared at the Brennan Center Monday to discuss his new book, “The Voting Wars.” See video and photos from the event.
  • The Center’s Lawrence Norden wrote about voting victories in Texas and Florida at The Daily Beast. Watch Myrna Pérez discuss the laws on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show.
  • Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) gave an impassioned speech on voting rights at the Democratic National Convention. Bill Clinton also mentioned restrictive voting laws in his speech. Read more on the Obama campaign’s effort to overcome voter ID laws and other restrictions.
  • Requests for absentee ballots from military voters are “remarkably low this year,” according to a report from the Military Voting Participation Project. A Pentagon report found the “government’s efforts to assist military voters … aren’t working thanks to underfunding and ineffective outreach to younger military personnel,” TPM reported.
  • “The greatest irony of the new crop of voter ID laws is that they do nothing to combat the more frequent problem of absentee ballot fraud,” wrote Columbia Law Professor Nathaniel Persily at
  • Writing for The New York Times, Yale History Professor David W. Blight detailed the history of vote suppression against African-Americans.
  • The Daily Beast looked at how restrictive voting laws could make it harder for students to vote.
  • SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston explained the issues in Shelby County v. Holder, a key case challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Court could hear this term. The blog is holding an online symposium on the Voting Rights Act this week. Read more on the VRA at ProPublica and listen to this piece from NPR’s All Things Considered.