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Voting Restrictions Cause Confusion, Outside Spending Dominates Senate, Judicial Races

Yesterday’s midterm election was the first time voters experienced the full impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions on voting protections and campaign finance laws.

November 5, 2014

Yesterday’s election was the first time voters experienced the full impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions gutting voting protections and campaign finance laws.

What did we learn?

  • New voting restrictions led to problems and confusion at the polls. Voter ID and voter registration problems were the most visible. In Texas, for example, voters were turned away because of a strict new photo ID requirement. There were widespread reports of confusion over voter ID laws elsewhere, including in states where courts had recently blocked new laws. Voter registration problems were also prevalent across the country — especially in Georgia, where many voters not on the rolls had to cast provisional ballots, leading in some places to long lines. In North Carolina, there were widespread complaints of voters being told they were at the wrong polling place

  • Restrictive laws may have impacted close races. “While we can breathe a sigh of relief that the electoral outcomes won’t be mired in litigation, a quick look at the numbers show that in several key races, the margin of victory came very close to the likely margin of disenfranchisement,” wrote Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. In her post-election analysis, Weiser runs through close contests in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia, and Florida and explains how voter ID, early voting cuts, and registration limits could have affected key elections. Read more here.

  • Secret outside spending dominated Senate elections. As of October 29 (the most recent date for which we have data), $328 million was spent by outside groups in the 11 most competitive Senate races, far surpassing the $259 million spent in all 33 races in 2012. A majority (58 percent) of this spending came from “dark money” sources, meaning groups that hide the identities of some or all of their donors. These numbers will increase significantly once all spending is accounted for through Election Day.

  • Outside spending also surged in Supreme Court races. Leading up to Election Day, special interest groups dramatically increased TV ad spending to influence state Supreme Court races in key states. The Brennan Center will release updated spending numbers later today.

“The Supreme Court has rewritten the ground rules of our democracy. The new practices that resulted are undermining the integrity of our elections,” said Wendy Weiser. “Yesterday’s election featured new laws cutting back on voting and cash from unknown sources flooding the most important races. While many ordinary Americans struggled to cast a ballot, major donors were allowed to spend at will to influence their votes.

“We can fix these problems,” she continued. “Modernizing the registration system would bring millions onto the rolls, cut costs, and increase accuracy. Updating the Voting Rights Act would restore key protections. And enacting small donor public financing would empower average citizens.”

Experts from the Brennan Center for Justice — including Myrna Pérez, Nicole Austin-Hillery, Lawrence Norden, Ian Vandewalker, Alicia Bannon, and others — are available for post-election analysis on voting rights, money in politics, and judicial elections.

For more information, or to schedule an interview with one of our experts, please contact: