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Expert Brief

The State of Voting in 2014

In advance of this crucial midterm election, this report details new voting restrictions put in place over the past few years, laws in place for the first time in 2014, and major lawsuits that could affect this year’s elections. See all our 2014 voting resources.

Published: June 17, 2014

[View this analysis as a PDF]

See all of the Bren­nan Center’s 2014 voting resources.

Exec­ut­ive Summary

As we approach the 2014 elec­tion, Amer­ica is still in the midst of a high-pitched and often highly partisan battle over voting rights. On one side are politi­cians passing laws and exec­ut­ive actions that would make it harder for many citizens to vote. This star­ted after the 2010 midterm elec­tions, when new state legis­lat­ive major­it­ies pushed a wave of laws crack­ing down on voting. On the other side are groups of voters and advoc­ates push­ing back — in the legis­latures, at the ballot box, and espe­cially in the courts.  

Until recently, the Voting Rights Act was a crit­ical tool in the fight, but the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law’s core protec­tion last year. Since then, a number of states moved forward with contro­ver­sial voting changes, includ­ing those previ­ously blocked under the Voting Rights Act. As most state legis­lat­ive sessions wind down, the focus shifts to activ­ity in the courts, which are currently consid­er­ing major chal­lenges to new restric­tions across the coun­try.

In short, many Amer­ic­ans face an ever-shift­ing voting land­scape before head­ing to the polls this Novem­ber.

In advance of this crucial midterm elec­tion, this report details the new voting restric­tions put in place over the past few years, the laws that are in place for the first time in 2014, and the major lawsuits that could affect this year’s elec­tions. Our key find­ings include:

  • Since the 2010 elec­tion, new voting restric­tions are slated to be in place in 22 states. Unless these restric­tions are blocked — and there are court chal­lenges to laws in six of those states — voters in nearly half the coun­try could find it harder to cast a ballot in the 2014 midterm elec­tion than they did in 2010. The new laws range from photo ID require­ments to early voting cutbacks to voter regis­tra­tion restric­tions. Partis­an­ship and race were key factors in this move­ment. Most restric­tions passed through GOP-controlled legis­latures and in states with increases in minor­ity turnout.
  • In 15 states, 2014 will be the first major federal elec­tion with these new restric­tions in place. Ongo­ing court cases could affect laws in six of these states.
  • The courts will play a crucial role in 2014, with ongo­ing suits chal­len­ging laws in seven states. Voting advoc­ates have filed suits in both federal and state courts chal­len­ging new restric­tions, and those suits are ongo­ing in seven states — Arizona, Arkan­sas, Kansas, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Texas, and Wiscon­sin. There is also an ongo­ing case in Iowa over admin­is­trat­ive action that could restrict voting. More cases are possible as we get closer to the elec­tion.

There has also been some posit­ive momentum. Laws to improve the elec­tion system and increase voting access passed in 16 states since 2012, and these laws will be in effect in 11 states this Novem­ber. The most common improve­ments were online regis­tra­tion and other meas­ures to modern­ize voter regis­tra­tion, and increased early voting.

Still, this national struggle over voting rights is the greatest in decades. Voters in nearly half the coun­try could head to the polls in Novem­ber worse off than they were four years ago. This needs to change.

New Laws Restrict­ing the Vote

Elec­tion laws have long been prone to politi­ciz­a­tion, but for decades there were no major legis­lat­ive move­ments to restrict voting. Indeed, the last major legis­lat­ive push to cut back on voting rights was after Recon­struc­tion. The first stir­rings of a new move­ment to restrict voting came after the 2000 Flor­ida elec­tion debacle. Indi­ana and Geor­gia passed restrict­ive photo ID laws in 2005 and 2006, respect­ively, and Arizona voters approved a ballot initi­at­ive in 2004 requir­ing regis­trants to provide docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship when sign­ing up.

But the 2010 elec­tion marked a major shift. From early 2011 until the 2012 elec­tion, state lawmakers across the coun­try intro­duced at least 180 restrict­ive voting bills in 41 states. By the 2012 elec­tion, 19 states passed 27 restrict­ive voting meas­ures, many of which were over­turned or weakened by courts, citizen-led initi­at­ives, and the Depart­ment of Justice before the elec­tion. States contin­ued to pass voting restric­tions in 2013 and 2014.

What is the cumu­lat­ive effect of this legis­lat­ive move­ment? As of now, a few months before the 2014 midterm elec­tions, new voting restric­tions are set to be in place in 22 states.[1] Ongo­ing court cases could affect laws in six of these states.[2] Unless these restric­tions are blocked, citizens in nearly half the nation could find it harder to vote this year than in 2010.

States with New Voting Restrictions Since 2010 Election

Click for inter­act­ive version.

Partis­an­ship played a key role. Of the 22 states with new restric­tions, 18 passed entirely through GOP-controlled bodies,[4] and Missis­sip­pi’s photo ID law passed by a voter refer­en­dum. Two of the remain­ing three states — Illinois and Rhode Island — passed much less severe restric­tions. Accord­ing to a recent study from the Univer­sity of Massachu­setts Boston, restric­tions were more likely to pass “as the propor­tion of Repub­lic­ans in the legis­lature increased or when a Repub­lican governor was elec­ted.”

Race was also a signi­fic­ant factor. Of the 11 states with the highest African-Amer­ican turnout in 2008, 7 have new restric­tions in place.[5] Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic popu­la­tion growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote.[6] And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previ­ously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrim­in­a­tion in voting have new restric­tions since the 2010 elec­tion.[7] Social science stud­ies bear this out. Accord­ing to the Univer­sity of Massachu­setts Boston study, states with higher minor­ity turnout were more likely to pass restrict­ive voting laws. A Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia study suggests that legis­lat­ive support for voter ID laws was motiv­ated by racial bias.

What do these laws look like?

  • Voter ID: A total of 13 states passed more restrict­ive voter ID laws between 2011 and 2014, 11 of which are slated to be in effect in 2014.[8] Nine states passed strict photo ID require­ments,[9] mean­ing a citizen cannot cast a ballot that will count without a specific kind of govern­ment-issued photo ID. An addi­tional four states passed less strict ID require­ments.[10] Eleven percent of Amer­ic­ans do not have govern­ment-issued photo ID, accord­ing to a Bren­nan Center study, which has been confirmed by numer­ous inde­pend­ent stud­ies. Research shows these laws dispro­por­tion­ately harm minor­it­ies, low-income indi­vidu­als, seni­ors, students, and people with disab­il­it­ies. In Texas, for example, early data from the state showed that between 600,000 and 800,000 registered voters did not have the kind of photo ID required by the state’s law, and that Hispan­ics were 46 to 120 percent more likely to lack an ID than whites. In North Caro­lina, estim­ates show that 318,000 registered voters — one-third of whom are African Amer­ican — lack a DMV-issued ID.[11]
  • Voter Regis­tra­tion: A total of nine states passed laws making it harder for citizens to register to vote between 2011 and 2014.[12] These meas­ures took a vari­ety of forms. Four states[13] have new restric­tions on voter regis­tra­tion drives. Nation­ally, African Amer­ic­ans and Hispan­ics register through drives at twice the rate as whites.[14] Three states[15] also passed laws requir­ing regis­trants to provide docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship, which as many as 7 percent of Amer­ic­ans do not have read­ily avail­able. North Caro­lina elim­in­ated highly-popu­lar same-day regis­tra­tion, and Wiscon­sin made it harder for people who have moved to stay registered.
  • Early Voting: Eight states passed laws cutting back on early voting days and hours.[16] These restric­tions could exacer­bate lines on Elec­tion Day and are partic­u­larly likely to hurt minor­ity voters. For example, in North Caro­lina, Depart­ment of Justice data show that 7 in 10 African Amer­ic­ans who cast ballots in 2008 voted during the early voting period, and 23 percent of them did so during the week that was cut. Many states elim­in­ated week­end and even­ing hours, when minor­ity voters are more likely to cast a ballot. Accord­ing to a study in Ohio in 2008, 56 percent of week­end voters in Cuyahoga County, the state’s most popu­lous, were black.
  • Restor­ing Voting Rights to People with Past Convic­tions: Three states also made it harder to restore voting rights for people with past crim­inal convic­tions.[17] These laws dispro­por­tion­ately impact African Amer­ic­ans. Nation­wide, 7.7 percent of African Amer­ic­ans have lost the right to vote, compared to 1.8 percent of the rest of the popu­la­tion.

What’s New in 2014

In 15 states,[18] 2014 will be the first major federal elec­tion with new voting restric­tions in place. Ongo­ing court cases could affect laws in six of these states.[19] The uncer­tainty over these laws could lead to prob­lems on Elec­tion Day, as they did in 2012, when voting changes, even those not in effect, contrib­uted to long lines.[20] We have already seen prob­lems with new ID require­ments in low-turnout primar­ies, such as in Arkan­sas this May, which could fore­shadow more seri­ous prob­lems in Novem­ber.

Voting Restrictions 2014

Lawsuits Over Voting Restric­tions

Voter advoc­ates are fight­ing many of these new restric­tions, espe­cially in court. Voting restric­tions are currently being chal­lenged in court in seven states — Arizona, Arkan­sas, Kansas, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Texas, and Wiscon­sin. A lawsuit over a voter purge is also ongo­ing in Iowa. Most of the cases we are watch­ing this year will likely be decided, at least prelim­in­ar­ily, in the coming months and could thus impact the 2014 elec­tion.

Major Voting Litigation 2014

Click for inter­act­ive version.

Chal­lenges to restrict­ive voting laws have had a success­ful track record to date. Before the 2012 elec­tion, 10 courts blocked new restric­tions in at least 7 states.[21] Some of those legal fights contin­ued into this year — in Pennsylvania (where a case chal­len­ging a strict new photo ID require­ment is now over after the governor chose not to appeal a ruling against the law), in Texas (where a court found the state’s voter ID law discrim­in­at­ory under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but then the Supreme Court effect­ively inval­id­ated Section 5, prompt­ing a new lawsuit chal­len­ging the same voter ID law under a differ­ent legal provi­sion), and in Arizona (where the Supreme Court ruled against the state’s new docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship require­ment for voter regis­tra­tion but left room for the state to sue again to seek a differ­ent result).

Over the past few years voters have won decis­ively in Pennsylvania on voter ID; in Flor­ida on voter regis­tra­tion restric­tions, early voting cutbacks, and a voter purge; in Ohio on early voting cutbacks and provi­sional ballot count­ing; and in a few cases chal­len­ging ballot meas­ure language.

Voters received favor­able decisions in ongo­ing lawsuits in Wiscon­sin and Arkan­sas on voter ID and Iowa on voter purges. Voters also won a lawsuit chal­len­ging Texas’s voter ID law that is now being re-litig­ated under a differ­ent provi­sion of law after the Supreme Court gutted a key provi­sion of the Voting Rights Act.

Voters have also exper­i­enced losses — in Tennessee on voter ID, in Texas on voter regis­tra­tion drive restric­tions, and in South Caro­lina on voter ID (though during the course of the litig­a­tion, the state inter­preted the law in a way that was much less restrict­ive). All of those laws are in place this year.

Improv­ing Voting Access

There has also been some posit­ive momentum to improve voting.

After long lines marred the 2012 elec­tion, dozens of states intro­duced legis­la­tion in 2013 and 2014 to improve access to the polls. Over­all, laws to improve the voting process passed in 16 states, and are set to be in effect in 11 states this Novem­ber.[22] Five of these states also passed voting restric­tions.[23]

States that Expaded Voting in 2013 and 2014

Click for inter­act­ive version.

What do these laws look like?

  • Voter Regis­tra­tion Modern­iz­a­tion: A total of 11 states passed laws to modern­ize the voter regis­tra­tion system and make it easier for eligible citizens to sign up.[24] (A number of states, like New York, imple­men­ted reforms admin­is­trat­ively and are not reflec­ted here.) Research shows these upgrades can increase regis­tra­tion rates, effi­ciency, and accur­acy, save money, and curb the poten­tial for fraud.
    • Seven states passed laws creat­ing or upgrad­ing online regis­tra­tion systems.[25]
    • Five states added same-day regis­tra­tion options.[26]
    • Two states passed laws requir­ing motor vehicle offices to trans­fer voter regis­tra­tions elec­tron­ic­ally to local elec­tion offices.[27]
  • Early Voting: Three states expan­ded or created early voting oppor­tun­it­ies[28], which can reduce stress on the voting system, lead to shorter lines on Elec­tion Day, and improve poll worker perform­ance, among other bene­fits. Massachu­sett­s’s law will not be in effect until 2016. Missouri and Connecti­cut voters will also consider ballot meas­ures to create early voting peri­ods.
  • Pre-Regis­tra­tion: Three states passed laws allow­ing 16– and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote before turn­ing 18.[29]
  • Restor­ing Voting Rights to People with Past Convic­tions: Delaware passed a consti­tu­tional amend­ment expand­ing oppor­tun­it­ies for people with crim­inal convic­tions to regain their right to vote.
  • Easing Voter ID Burdens: Oklahoma passed a law making its exist­ing photo ID law less restrict­ive.
  • Access to Ballots: Color­ado expan­ded access for voters who speak a language other than English. Missis­sippi and Oklahoma also expan­ded access to absentee ballots.

There was also move­ment on the national level. The bipar­tisan Pres­id­en­tial Commis­sion on Elec­tion Admin­is­tra­tion released a widely-praised set of recom­mend­a­tions to fix many of the prob­lems persist­ently plaguing the voting system. These ideas included modern­iz­ing voter regis­tra­tion and increas­ing early voting oppor­tun­it­ies. A few states — Hawaii, Illinois, Nebraska, Massachu­setts, and Minnesota — adop­ted some of these reforms in 2014. And in Congress, Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats intro­duced a bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Unfor­tu­nately, that meas­ure appears stalled. Demo­crats in Congress also intro­duced a host of bills to modern­ize the voting system, reduce long lines, and increase access to the polls.


[1] Alabama, Arkan­sas, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Illinois, Indi­ana, Iowa, Kansas, Missis­sippi, Nebraska, New Hamp­shire, North Caro­lina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Caro­lina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wiscon­sin. For a detailed descrip­tion of each state’s laws, see our inter­act­ive map or this list.

[2] Arkan­sas, Kansas, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Texas, and Wiscon­sin. There is also a chal­lenge to an Arizona law not reflec­ted here because that law passed before 2010.

[3] Montana lawmakers put a refer­en­dum on the Novem­ber ballot to repeal Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion, but that repeal will not actu­ally be in effect this year. An Arizona law requir­ing docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship when regis­ter­ing was passed in 2004, but blocked in 2012 for a voter using the federal regis­tra­tion form. In response, Arizona joined Kansas, which has a similar law, in a suit to force the U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion (EAC) to change the federal form to allow the two states to require such docu­ments. In March 2014, a federal judge ruled the EAC must change the form, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed that decision while it considers the appeal. Arizona is included here because until now, the federal form has never been amended to allow for docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship in any state.

[4] By GOP-controlled body, we mean: (1) Both cham­bers of the legis­lature were controlled by Repub­lic­ans and a Repub­lican governor signed the bill, (2) Repub­lic­ans controlled both cham­bers and over­rode a veto from a Demo­cratic governor, or (3) a Repub­lican governor took exec­ut­ive action without legis­lat­ive involve­ment. States in the first category were Alabama, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Indi­ana, Kansas, Nebraska (unicam­eral legis­lature with GOP governor), North Caro­lina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Caro­lina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia (the GOP lieu­ten­ant governor broke a tie between an equally divided Senate), and Wiscon­sin. States in the second category were Arkan­sas and New Hamp­shire. Iowa and Flor­ida fall into the third category.

[5] Missis­sippi (73.1 percent), South Caro­lina (72.5), Wiscon­sin (70.5), Ohio (70.0), Geor­gia (68.1), North Caro­lina (68.1), and Virginia (68.1). Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Voting and Regis­tra­tion in the Elec­tion of Novem­ber 2008 – Detailed Tables, Table  4b (Repor­ted Voting and Regis­tra­tion of the Voting-Age Popu­la­tion, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States: Novem­ber 2008) http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/socdemo/voting/public­a­tions/p20/2008/tables.html.

[6] South Caro­lina (148 percent growth), Alabama (145), Tennessee (134), Arkan­sas (114), North Caro­lina (111), Missis­sippi (106), South Dakota (103), Geor­gia (96), and Virginia (92). Source: Pew Hispanic Center tabu­la­tions of U.S. Census Bureau Redis­trict­ing_Files-PL_94–171 for states http://www.pewhis­panic.org/files/reports/140.pdf.

[7] Alabama, Flor­ida (partially covered), Geor­gia, Missis­sippi, North Caro­lina (partially covered), South Caro­lina, South Dakota (partially covered), Texas, and Virginia.

[8] Alabama, Arkan­sas, Kansas, Missis­sippi, New Hamp­shire, North Caro­lina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Caro­lina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wiscon­sin. The North Caro­lina law will not be in effect for 2016, and the Wiscon­sin law was blocked by the courts in ongo­ing litig­a­tion. Some of these states passed more than one voting restric­tion and thus appear in other categor­ies as well.

[9] Alabama, Arkan­sas, Kansas, Missis­sippi, North Caro­lina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wiscon­sin. The North Caro­lina law will not be in effect for 2016, and the Wiscon­sin law was blocked by the courts in ongo­ing litig­a­tion.

[10] A photo ID is reques­ted in New Hamp­shire, Rhode Island, and South Caro­lina, but there is an affi­davit altern­at­ive. A non-photo ID is required in North Dakota.

[11] A study from the North Caro­lina Board of Elec­tions estim­ates 318,643 registered voters lack a DMV-issued photo ID. Approx­im­ately one-third of that total (107,681) are African Amer­ican. Avail­able here: http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/elec­tion­law/litig­a­tion/docu­ments/League1591.pdf.

[12] Alabama, Flor­ida, Illinois, Kansas, North Caro­lina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wiscon­sin. Due to an error, Nebraska was previ­ously included in this list. It was updated and removed on Octo­ber 9, 2014.

[13] Flor­ida, Illinois, Texas, and Virginia.

[15] Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee. The Kansas law is only in effect for the state regis­tra­tion form. Alabama and Tennessee elec­tion offi­cials have yet to imple­ment their state’s laws.

[16] Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Nebraska, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wiscon­sin.

[17] Flor­ida, Iowa, and South Dakota.

[18] Alabama, Arkan­sas, Indi­ana, Kansas, Missis­sippi, Nebraska, North Caro­lina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Caro­lina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wiscon­sin.

[19] Arkan­sas, Kansas, North Caro­lina, Ohio, Texas, and Wiscon­sin. There is also a chal­lenge to an Arizona law not reflec­ted here because that law passed before 2010.

[21] Arizona, Flor­ida, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wiscon­sin.

[22] Laws in Color­ado, Delaware, Illinois, Mary­land, Minnesota, Missis­sippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia are slated to be in effect in 2014. Meas­ures in Hawaii, Louisi­ana, Massachu­setts, and Nebraska will be in effect at a later date. Missouri voters will consider a ballot meas­ure this Novem­ber. Connecti­cut citizens will also vote on an early voting ballot meas­ure this year, but that bill passed prior to 2013 and is not included in this count. For a detailed descrip­tion of each state’s laws, see our inter­act­ive map or this list.

[23] Illinois, Nebraska, Missis­sippi, Virginia, and West Virginia.

[24] Color­ado, Hawaii, Illinois, Mary­land, Massachu­setts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

[25] Illinois, Massachu­setts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

[26] Color­ado, Hawaii, Illinois, Mary­land, and Utah. Both Illinois and Utah are pilot programs.

[27] Nebraska and New Mexico.

[28] Illinois, Mary­land, and Massachu­setts. Illinois’s bill is a pilot program for 2014 only.

[29] Color­ado, Louisi­ana, and Massachu­setts.