Politics

The Long-Term Impact of Voting Law Changes

They may not have a big impact on elections this November, but that could change down the road.
by | March 25, 2014
Early voters line the sidewalk in Columbia, S.C. Thirteen states have introduced bills to initiate or expand early voting this year.
Early voters line the sidewalk in Columbia, S.C. Thirteen states have introduced bills to initiate or expand early voting this year. Tim Dominick/The State/MCT

Last week, we looked at what the electoral impact of new election-law changes would be in 2014. Would stricter photo ID requirements or curtailed early voting influence the outcome of November races in the states that had passed such legislation? Ultimately, we concluded any affect would be limited.

MORE: State and local elections coverage

But in other ways -- and in the longer term -- such changes to voting rules could have a big impact. Here are a few ways in which the new changes could shape November and beyond:

Several states where election-law changes are being held up in the courts are highly competitive electorally.

In both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, voter ID laws are being held up in the courts. The laws were passed by Republican legislatures and signed by Republican governors, but both of these states are politically competitive. If either law is ultimately enacted, numerous competitive races could be affected in future electoral cycles.

Several states that have recently tightened voter ID laws are likely to be presidential battlegrounds for 2016.

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin certainly fit this category. So does North Carolina, which is going to see most of the key provisions hitting in 2016. And Ohio and Virginia, both of which have new laws on the books, have been key presidential battlegrounds in recent years.

The passage of voter ID laws may energize Democratic voters and hurt the Republican "brand."

Democrats are trying to channel voter concern about election-law changes in Texas. And it's at least as big a deal in North Carolina if not more so.

In North Carolina, the Republican legislature and Republican governor passed a far-reaching election law in 2013. The biggest provisions will hit in 2016, which is both a presidential year and the major election year for statewide positions. The North Carolina bill -- one of many hardline conservative bills to be passed by the newly empowered GOP majority in 2013 -- became a focus for protests at the state capitol known as the Moral Monday movement.

The question, said one political observer in the state, is whether the Moral Monday movement "can go from holding protests to moving people to the polls. Since we don't really have a strong Democratic Party in this state, Moral Monday might provide boots on the ground. Whether that will actually happen is a huge open question."

The wave of election-law changes isn't over; many other states are still considering changes.

Since 2013, at least 12 states have taken up new voter ID laws, seven have considered proposals to strengthen existing photo ID laws and 11 have weighed other changes to existing photo ID laws. Meanwhile, eight states have considered bills to limit opportunities for registration, two have considered rollbacks in early voting and five have weighed stricter limits on mail voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Such efforts received a boost in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case Shelby County v. Holder, effectively ended federal preclearance requirements for electoral changes under the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. "No longer subject to the federal scrutiny the VRA provided, states like North Carolina have already begun passing laws that could have a disastrous impact on minority turnout," wrote the authors of a briefing paper by Project Vote, an advocacy group on voting rights. North Carolina's new law, which Project Vote calls "notorious," encompasses "the worst of modern-day voter suppression measures: requiring voter ID, restricting early voting, repealing same-day registration, and revoking policies that increase the participation of younger voters."

In a number of states, the push to restrict voting rights has prompted a push-pull struggle.

In Montana, for instance, Republican legislative majorities passed a law to end same-day registration, which had been on the books since 2005. The state's Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, vetoed it, but the legislature passed a measure to place it on the ballot for voter approval this fall. The reason for the struggle? "Democrats kill Republicans on getting people to the polls to register on Election Day," said one political observer in the state.

A second measure to be presented to Montana voters this fall dictates that the top two vote-getters in the primary election advance to the general election ballot, regardless of party. "This is an attempt by Republicans to eliminate Libertarians from the general election ballot," the Montana political observer said. Making it significantly harder for Libertarian candidates to make the general election ballot could boost Republicans by removing a small but consistent drain on conservative votes.

The push to limit voting rights has inspired efforts, often in more favorable political territory, to expand access to the ballot box.

In the current legislative cycle, at least 190 bills have been offered in 31 states that would increase access to voting, with 12 measures securing hearings, committee activity or votes, according to the Brennan Center.

For instance, bills have been introduced in 18 states to upgrade or expand voter registration processes, including same-day registration, while 13 have introduced bills to initiate or expand early voting and 11 have offered bills to pre-register students under the age of 18 to vote. Other measures being considered include restoration of felon voting rights, improvements in allocation of poll workers to crowded precincts, better voting opportunities for military voters, and expansion of mail voting.

One proposal that has attracted wide interest is online voter registration. More than a dozen states have considered this option in the current legislative session, in addition to 19 states that already had such a policy in place, says Wendy Underhill, a program manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

This is one idea that is relatively nonpartisan, she says. "This isn't about making it easier or harder to vote. It's an administrative choice appropriate to the era in which we live."

Indeed, those who seek to broaden voting access hold out hope that the backlash against the recent string of limitations will pave the way for more accessible voting.

"We're overdue for a serious conversation about whether we accept voting as a fundamental individual right," says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a pro-election-reform group. "Too many do not treat it that way."

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