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The dramatic national effort to restrict Amer­ic­ans’ voting rights was met this year with an equally dramatic push­back by courts, citizens, the Depart­ment of Justice, and farsighted public offi­cials. What does a survey of the land­scape one week before Elec­tion Day 2012 now show? Strik­ingly, nearly all the worst new laws to cut back on voting have been blocked, blun­ted, repealed, or post­poned. Laws in 14 states were reversed or weakened. As a result, new restric­tions will affect far fewer than the 5 million citizens we predicted last year. For the over­whelm­ing major­ity of those whose rights were most at risk, the abil­ity to vote will not be at issue on Novem­ber 6th.


Intro­duc­tion

Our nation was foun­ded on the prin­ciple that “all men are created equal.” To fulfill this prom­ise, our voting system should be free, fair, and access­ible to all eligible citizens.

A year ago, the Bren­nan Center issued a study docu­ment­ing the recent and abrupt reversal of Amer­ica’s long tradi­tion of expand­ing voting access. Without national notice, legis­lat­ors pressed scores of new bills that would make it harder for eligible Amer­ic­ans to vote. This report helped spur much-needed public scru­tiny of these laws and their possible impact on our elec­tions.

We estim­ated that these new laws — which included oner­ous voter ID laws, cutbacks to early voting and community-based regis­tra­tion drives — “could make it signi­fic­antly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.” That number reflec­ted the sheer quant­ity and scope of restrict­ive legis­la­tion already then enacted in 14 states.

The drive to curb voting contin­ued beyond Octo­ber. All told, since Janu­ary 2011, at least 180 bills were intro­duced in 41 states. Ulti­mately, 25 new laws and two exec­ut­ive actions were adop­ted in 19 states. These states repres­en­ted 231 elect­oral votes, or 85 percent of the total needed to win the pres­id­ency. This amoun­ted to the biggest threat to voting rights in decades.

Today, the real­ity is very differ­ent, and far better for voters. The dramatic national effort to restrict Amer­ic­ans’ voting rights was met with an equally dramatic push­back by courts, citizens, the Depart­ment of Justice, and farsighted public offi­cials.

What does a survey of the land­scape one week before Elec­tion Day 2012 now show? Strik­ingly, nearly all the worst new laws to cut back on voting have been blocked, blun­ted, repealed, or post­poned. Laws in 14 states were reversed or weakened. As a result, new restric­tions will affect far fewer than the 5 million citizens we predicted last year. For the over­whelm­ing major­ity of those whose rights were most at risk, the abil­ity to vote will not be at issue on Novem­ber 6th.

At the same time, the fight will continue well past Novem­ber. Courts will exam­ine laws in Wiscon­sin, Pennsylvania, and else­where. Politi­cians will intro­duce more bills to limit voting rights. Most signi­fic­antly, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely hear two major cases that could substan­tially cut back on legal protec­tions for voters. It has already agreed to hear a chal­lenge, brought by Arizona, that could curb federal power to protect voting rights. The Court likely will also hear a chal­lenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which has proven to be a key protec­tion against discrim­in­at­ory laws, includ­ing many of the ones passed in 2011–12.

This upcom­ing legal battle unfolds against the back­drop of the recent struggle over voting rights — and in the wake of a clear demon­stra­tion of the vital need for strong laws to protect demo­cracy.