With more than a month to go until Election Day, the record for most money spent by outside groups to influence a midterm has already been broken. Meanwhile, Republicans in a number of states continue their relentless push to restrict access to the polls via reduced early voting and voter ID laws.
And earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (along the usual ideological lines) to cut Ohio’s early voting days just 16 hours before it was set to begin. During the 2012 election, some Ohioans who would not be able to cast a ballot on Election Day waited in line for hours to vote after Ohio’s Secretary of State, Jon Husted, cut early voting down from five weekends to one.
The Court’s decision is not in itself cause for alarm, but has worrying implications, writes UC-Irvine law professor and voting law expert Rick Hasen. The cutbacks are comparatively minor: Ohio still has 28 days of early voting, though the Court’s decision will eliminate at least one Sunday, when black churches often organize “Souls to the Polls” campaigns.
The problem, Hasen writes, is that the Ohio decision could be “bad news… [for] cases where the changes matter more” — namely, in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Texas. Challengers to Wisconsin’s voter ID law — which stands to disenfranchise 10 percent of the state’s voters — will be taking it to the Supreme Court, they announced today, with hopes that the Court will delay the implementation of the law before November’s gubernatorial election. And supporters of restrictive voting laws in North Carolina and Texas will likely push those cases to the high court as well. Today, the Supreme Court announced that it will also weigh in on an Arizona redistricting case.
Just yesterday in the North Carolina case, a federal appeals court blocked two measures enacted by the state’s GOP-majority legislature, saying there “can be no doubt” that they would “disproportionately impact minority voters.” North Carolina will have to count ballots cast in the wrong precinct and reinstate same-day voter registration in 2014 — unless the Supreme Court overturns yesterday’s decision. At The Nation, Ari Berman notes that “100,000 North Carolinians used same-day registration in 2012, including twice as many blacks as whites. Roughly 7,500 voters also cast their ballots in the wrong precinct but right county in 2012.”
Restrictive voting laws take many forms, but some are more transparent than others. Consider the Texas law that allows voters to present a concealed-carry license when casting their ballot, but not a student ID, making it more difficult for students, who traditionally lean Democrat, to vote while keeping access open for gun aficionados, a solid Republican constituency.
Cutting back on early voting hours — as is happening in Ohio — also disproportionately impacts Democratic voters, such as African-Americans and single mothers — who because of work or other responsibilities find it difficult to stand in long lines on Election Day. Fran Millar, the senior deputy whip for Georgia state Republicans, wrote an op-ed in his local paper explaining why he didn’t want to see more early voting days in his county, in which he said:
“Now we are to have Sunday voting at South DeKalb Mall just prior to the election. … this location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist.” — Fran Millar, Georgia Senator, Sept. 2014
Millar later clarified that comment: “I would prefer more educated voters than a greater increase in the number of voters. If you don’t believe this is an efort [sic] to maximize Democratic votes pure and simple, then you are not a realist. This is a partisan stunt and I hope it can be stopped.”
But conservative attacks on voters’ access to the polls may be taking even more creative forms. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) recently sent out hundreds of mailers to North Carolina voters (and at least one North Carolina cat) with grossly inaccurate and contradictory information on how to vote. The Raleigh News & Observer has a log of the many misleading statements on the mailers, which AFP presented as an “official application form” for voting. If it turns out that AFP intentionally sought to mislead voters on how to register, it would be a felony.
In the south, lawmakers moved rapidly to restrict voting (see, for example: Texas) after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which required states with a history of racially based voter discrimination to clear any changes to voting law with the federal government. In striking down parts of the VRA, the Court effectively passed the half century-old law back to Congress to restructure. A bipartisan coalition introduced a fix to the Act last January, but that legislation has since stalled.
New polling commissioned by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that Americans, given a description of the Voting Rights Act’s history, overwhelmingly opposed the Supreme Court’s decision to gut it. And majorities of Democrats and Republicans in every region of the country supported the initiative to fix the VRA.
“It vexes us that Republican leadership is opting to be on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law and — as we can confirm today — the wrong side of the American people,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a call with reporters this week.
So, without congressional direction on the issue, the battle over voting rights will be fought in state legislatures and then challenged in the courts, in some cases advancing to the Supreme Court. If recent rulings are any indication, it seems voting rights advocates are unlikely to find relief there. As Rick Hasen writes in Slate this week, “We ignore what’s coming in our peril.”
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