With Republicans taking control of most U.S. capitols this year and a presidential race looming, states have passed the most election-related laws since 2003 in a push to tighten voting rules.
Forty-seven states have enacted 285 election-related laws this year, and 60 percent were in states with Republican governors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats are pushing back by vetoing photo-identification laws in five states and trying to repeal other voting laws in Maine and Ohio, where President Barack Obama’s campaign is promoting the effort.
It’s the “battle before the battle” as both parties fight for what they think are the most advantageous and fairest rules, said Doug Chapin, director of an elections-administration program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
“We’re at a level of activity that I don’t think I’ve ever seen,” Chapin said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got the combination of a fiercely divided nation, uncertainty about what the rules are and a belief that every single vote counts.”
The hottest legislation has been voter identification, according to the NCSL. At the year’s start, only Georgia and Indiana required a photo ID and offered no alternative way to have votes counted in its absence. Opponents say such laws discourage voting by the poor and black people, who traditionally back Democrats. Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas enacted or amended laws requiring photo ID this year, and 34 states in all considered such bills, the Denver-based organization said.
Opportunity and Motive
Republicans who after the 2010 elections took over legislatures and governor’s offices -- they now control 29 -- have had more opportunity to act on election issues, Sean Greene, research manager with the Pew Center on the States’ election initiatives, said in a telephone interview. The issue divides Republicans concerned about fraud and Democrats interested in access, he said.
Democrats, including former Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, say the trend is a coordinated effort by Republicans.
“It’s a huge mistake for any party to try to influence or craft the rules in such a way that it’s meant to disadvantage one group or advantage another unfairly,” Brunner said in an interview at her law office in Columbus.
Republicans such as Lou Blessing, a state representative from Cincinnati, see it differently: “Democrats are looking at having everybody and their brother vote, whether registered or not, and Republicans are looking at making sure only eligible voters are voting.”
In Ohio, a presidential battleground, Blessing is co-sponsor of a pending bill that would require photo ID.
The Republican-controlled Legislature also passed a separate law that Republican Governor John Kasich signed July 1. It makes changes to election rules, including shortening the absentee early-voting period to 21 days from 35 and restricting hours for in-person early voting, with no balloting on Sunday.
Brunner is helping lead the coalition Fair Elections Ohio that she said will collect the 231,147 signatures needed by Sept. 29 to halt implementation of the election law until a November 2012 referendum.
Expanded early voting is perceived to have helped Democrats, especially Obama in 2008, more than Republicans, said Daniel P. Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University and associate director of the university’s Election Law @ Moritz center.
Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign is soliciting petition circulators in Ohio by noting that almost 30 percent of votes there in the 2008 general election were cast early.
“Now, new rules severely restricting early voting will mean longer lines on Election Day, and fewer people making it to the polls,” Obama’s website appeal said. “Together, we can take back our voting rights.”
States including Florida, Georgia and Tennessee also limited early voting, while Maine, Florida and Texas changed restricted third-party registration efforts or eliminated Election-Day registration, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
In New England, a group called Protect Maine Votes is seeking a “people’s veto” on the November ballot of a measure requiring registration by the Thursday before a vote instead of allowing it on Election Day, said Mike Tipping, a spokesman for coalition member Maine People’s Alliance.
Concerns about fraud are overblown, because there are almost no cases of voters impersonating someone else, Tokaji said in a telephone interview.
“That leaves no doubt in my mind that the real goal of the legislators pressing these laws is to make it more difficult for people to vote,” he said.
A 2006 Brennan Center study found that 11 percent of U.S. citizens didn’t have a government-issued photo ID, and neither did 18 percent of citizens age 65 and older and 25 percent of black voters.
The Ohio photo ID bill would allow voters to get a free identification, and no one should oppose ensuring that all votes are cast legally, Blessing said.
Easier Than Beer
“You need to show a photo ID to buy a beer, you need to show a photo ID to do all kinds of things, and the most important thing we do in this country is vote,” Blessing said. “Anytime you have a fraudulent vote, that’s no different than someone who was denied the vote.”
The flurry of legislation leads to further politicization of how elections are run, Norden said. That could affect next year’s presidential vote by keeping certain people from voting while causing voter confusion and problems such as long lines at the polls, he said.
“It gets us even further from the idea that we should be making election-administration policy based on facts and data,” Norden said in a telephone interview from New York.