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See our updated roundup of voting law changes in 2013

Ahead of the 2012 elec­tions, a wave of legis­la­tion tight­en­ing restric­tions on voting has suddenly swept across the coun­try. More than 5 million Amer­ic­ans could be affected by the new rules already put in place this year — a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

In Octo­ber 2011, this report was the first full account­ing and analysis of this year’s voting cutbacks.

Exec­ut­ive Summary

Over the past century, our nation expan­ded the fran­chise and knocked down myriad barri­ers to full elect­oral parti­cip­a­tion. In 2011, however, that momentum abruptly shif­ted.

State govern­ments across the coun­try enacted an array of new laws making it harder to register or to vote. Some states require voters to show govern­ment-issued photo iden­ti­fic­a­tion, often of a type that as many as one in ten voters do not have. Other states have cut back on early voting, a hugely popu­lar innov­a­tion used by millions of Amer­ic­ans. Two states reversed earlier reforms and once again disen­fran­chised millions who have past crim­inal convic­tions but who are now taxpay­ing members of the community. Still others made it much more diffi­cult for citizens to register to vote, a prerequis­ite for voting.

These new restric­tions fall most heav­ily on young, minor­ity, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disab­il­it­ies. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the polit­ical terrain for the 2012 elec­tion. Based on the Bren­nan Center’s analysis of the 19 laws and two exec­ut­ive actions that passed in 14 states, it is clear that:

  • These new laws could make it signi­fic­antly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.
  • The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 elect­oral votes in 2012 – 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the pres­id­ency.
  • Of the 12 likely battle­ground states, as assessed by an August Los Angeles Times analysis of Gallup polling, five have already cut back on voting rights (and may pass addi­tional restrict­ive legis­la­tion), and two more are currently consid­er­ing new restric­tions.

States have changed their laws so rapidly that no single analysis has assessed the over­all impact of such moves. Although it is too early to quantify how the changes will impact voter turnout, they will be a hindrance to many voters at a time when the United States contin­ues to turn out less than two thirds of its eligible citizens in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions and less than half in midterm elec­tions.

This study is the first compre­hens­ive roundup of all state legis­lat­ive action thus far in 2011 on voting rights, focus­ing on new laws as well as state legis­la­tion that has not yet passed or that failed. This snap­shot may soon be incom­plete: the second halves of some state legis­lat­ive sessions have begun.