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New Ballot-Box Rules Create Obstacles

In 22 states, voters could face obstacles to the ballot box in November, including strict photo ID requirements, cutbacks to early voting, and fewer registration opportunities.

Published: June 30, 2014

Cross­pos­ted at AM New York and News­day.

In 2012, super­storm Sandy caused Elec­tion Day confu­sion on Long Island, where voters faced hurdles due to polling loca­tion changes and damaged voting machines. Barring another major storm, voting this year will likely be much smoother.

Unfor­tu­nately, voting may not be so easy for millions of Amer­ic­ans nation­wide—and not because of a weather emer­gency. In 22 states, voters could face obstacles to the ballot box in Novem­ber, includ­ing strict photo ID require­ments, cutbacks to early voting, and fewer regis­tra­tion oppor­tun­it­ies.

All of the restric­tion­s—which dispro­por­tion­ately affect seni­ors, students, low-income indi­vidu­als and minor­it­ies—may make it harder to cast ballots. Taken together, it is the biggest voting rights roll­back since the Jim Crow era. And unless the courts step in, these laws could dampen turnout and drown out the voices of ordin­ary citizens.

Elec­tion laws have been prone to politi­ciz­a­tion, but the tide turned in 2010, when a new crop of state legis­lat­ors passed laws making it harder for certain citizens to vote. Partis­an­ship and race played key roles.

Of the 22 states with new restric­tions, 18 passed through GOP-controlled bodies. Of the 11 states with the highest African-Amer­ican turnout in 2008, seven have new restric­tions. And of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic popu­la­tion growth between 2000 and 2010, nine limited voting.

Social science stud­ies support these find­ings. A Univer­sity of Massachu­setts Boston study showed states with higher minor­ity turnout and more GOP legis­lat­ors were more likely to restrict voting. Another from the Univer­sity of South­ern Cali­for­nia sugges­ted racial bias motiv­ated support for such laws. Research also shows the laws hurt minor­it­ies.

Examples include new voter ID laws, which require specific kinds of photo ID that 11 percent of Amer­ic­ans do not have, and cutbacks in early voting.

In Texas, data showed 600,000 to 800,000 registered voters did not have photo ID and Hispan­ics were 46 to 120 percent more likely to lack ID than whites. In North Caro­lina, Depart­ment of Justice data show seven in 10 African-Amer­ic­ans who voted in 2008 used the early voting period, and 23 percent did so during the week that was elim­in­ated.

Fortu­nately, advoc­ates are fight­ing the laws in court, and the chal­lenges have a success­ful track record. Before Novem­ber 2012, 10 courts blocked laws in seven states. The courts will play a crucial role in 2014. This year, Pennsylvania gave up on a voter ID law after a court struck it down. Voters also received favor­able decisions in ID cases in Wiscon­sin and Arkan­sas. There are suits in seven states.

But a crit­ical tool is miss­ing this year—the Voting Rights Act. A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law’s core protec­tion, which had helped block many of the restric­tions. Since then, a number of states, such as Texas and North Caro­lina, moved forward with contro­ver­sial changes. Most of those meas­ures are once again being chal­lenged.

Not all states are trying to cut voting. Indeed, 16 have improved access. The most common improve­ments were online regis­tra­tion and increased early voting. In New York, voters with a DMV iden­ti­fic­a­tion can register or update their inform­a­tion online, although it’s one of a hand­ful of states without a mean­ing­ful early voting system. Still, the national struggle over voting rights is the greatest in decades. Resid­ents in nearly half the coun­try could head to the polls in Novem­ber with voting rights that are weaker than four years ago.

(Photo: Flickr/Ken Zirkel)