Republicans are poised to gain next month from new election laws in almost half the 50 U.S. states, where the additional requirements defy a half-century trend of easing access to the polls.
In North Carolina, where Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan’s re-election fight may determine the nation’s balance of power, the state ended same-day registration used more heavily by blacks. A Texas law will affect more than 500,000 voters who lack identification and are disproportionately black and Hispanic, according to a federal judge. In Ohio, lawmakers discontinued a week during which residents could register and vote on the same day, which another judge said burdens lower income and homeless voters.
While Republicans say the laws were meant to stop fraud or ease administrative burdens, Democrats and civil-rights groups maintain they’re aimed at damping turnout by blacks, Hispanics and the young, who are their mainstays in an increasingly diverse America. Texas found two instances of in-person voter fraud among more than 62 million votes cast in elections during the preceding 14 years, according to testimony in the federal case.
“You’re seeing the use of the election process as a means of clinging to power,” said Justin Levitt, who follows election regulation at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “You have more states passing laws that create hurdles and inconveniences to voting than we have seen go into effect in the last 50 years.”
Since Republicans won control of a majority of capitals in 2010, 21 states have instituted voter-identification laws, curtailed early polling and instituted stricter registration rules, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The trend was reinforced after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act last year.
At stake Nov. 4 is control of Congress and governments in 36 states. With the elections approaching, the Supreme Court dealt Democrats a defeat last week by allowing Texas to enforce an identification law that the federal judge who heard the case said was aimed at reducing black and Hispanic turnout. U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos called the measure “Draconian.”
That came after the court let Ohio cut early-voting hours and North Carolina eliminate same-day registration and discount provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
Challenges haven’t all gone the same way, and at least one jurist has entertained second thoughts. U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner, who in 2007 upheld an Indiana identification law, this month criticized a similar Wisconsin measure, saying it presented obstacles for minorities who are among the 300,000 voters there who lack qualifying identification. That represents about 9 percent of the electorate.
“There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens,” Posner wrote in an opinion.
Asked in an interview last year with the Huffington Post whether he erred in the Indiana case, Posner said, “Yes, absolutely.”
Precise measures of the benefit for Republicans are elusive, said Nathan Gonzales, who tracks state and federal races for the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. In some cases, he said, Democrats may gain.
“The Democrats are using the threat of voter suppression to motivate the base,” he said.
In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker is locked in a statistical tie with Democratic opponent Mary Burke, according to a poll released Oct. 15 by Marquette Law School in Milwaukee. While Republicans’ elimination of weekend voting remains in place, a legal victory over an identification law may motivate Democrats, said Mike Wilder, co-chairman of the Wisconsin African-American Civic Engagement Roundtable.
“We see a high level of interest in the election,” he said. “People are going to come to the conclusion that if the vote wasn’t so powerful, why would they try to suppress it?”
President George W. Bush’s 2005 appointment of Chief Justice John Roberts changed the decades-old legal climate for election rules.
In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana identification law by a 6-3 vote. The justices raised the stakes last year by throwing out part of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark law that opened the polls to millions of Southern blacks disenfranchised by segregation and the legacy of slavery.
The 5-4 ruling effectively invalidated the requirement that parts of the country with a history of discrimination, including almost all of the South, obtain clearance from either the Justice Department or a federal court before changing any voting rules.
Republicans responded by enacting new laws around the country and implementing those already on the books.
In Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court order on Oct. 18 that let the state enforce voter identification law marks another setback to Democrats trying to win their first statewide election since 1994. State Senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, faces Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott in the governor’s race.
Abbott, who defended the law, said it prevents corruption.
“Voter fraud is real,” Abbott told cheering supporters at a Houston restaurant during an Oct. 14 campaign stop. “It must be stopped.”
In Ohio, Democratic state Senator Nina Turner, who is running for secretary of state, said she has started a “meet me at the box” program that asks voters to appear for early voting at set times. Republican claims that there are still ample voting opportunities ring hollow, she said.
“It’s almost like robbing somebody’s house and saying, ‘I robbed you blind, but why are you complaining? You still have your roof,’” Turner said.
Access to North Carolina’s polls may be pivotal for the outcome of the race for the Senate, where Democrats now hold 53 of 100 seats. Republicans already control the House of Representatives.
The Republican-led state last year ended same-day registration, kept voters from casting party-line votes and prevented election officials from counting ballots cast outside voters’ precincts.
Republican Governor Pat McCrory said the steps would make voting more secure and demand less of local officials.
After a U.S. Justice Department challenge, a divided Supreme Court this month allowed the law to stand for the election, a step Democrats say will present obstacles as polls show Hagan remains deadlocked with Republican Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state’s House of Representatives.
The governor praised the justices’ decision to allow the “popular and common sense bill” to remain in place to protect “the integrity of our elections” according to an e-mailed statement.
In the mountain town of Boone, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Charlotte, Claudia Shoemaker, 20, a Democratic activist, said many of her Appalachian State University classmates are still confused about the law. The measure will make photo identification a requirement to vote in 2016, though it wouldn’t count student ID cards.
“We’ve had these fights before, with women, with minorities,” Shoemaker said. “It’s the 21st century. We should be increasing access to the vote, not decreasing it.”