In North Carolina, early voting was cut by seven days. In Kansas, 22,000 people were stopped from registering to vote because they lacked proof of citizenship. And in Texas, Democrats say the country’s toughest voter ID law contributed to a one-term congressman’s losing a tight race to his Republican rival. After an Election Day that featured a wave of new voting restrictions across the country, data and details about who cast a ballot are being picked over to see if tighter rules swayed the outcomes of any races or contributed to the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. Since 2011, a dozen Republican-led states have passed strict voter ID requirements, some blocked by courts, measures that Republicans describe as needed to increase confidence in elections and critics call the modern equivalent of a poll tax, intended to suppress turnout by Democratic voters. Few are arguing that the laws drastically affected the overall results in a year that produced sweeping Republican victories, or that they were the dominant factor in voter participation. Although some Democrats claim the new laws may have swung close elections this month, voting experts caution that it is too soon to tell.
Users of a different kind of gavel have been busy setting rules for voters and election administrators in 2014. Courts, and not legislatures, have been the major force shaping state election laws this year, with some key rulings landing just days before voters headed to the polling places. And it’s not just district circuit justices who have been asked to rule on litigation about photo ID requirements for voters, early voting and same-day voter registration. Several notable rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court this year have addressed how elections are run. And some of those decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court have hardly settled election matters. The brief court orders in a few October cases— often two sentences— have addressed simply the timing of changes to the elections process; these cases are still to be decided on their merits by the courts with jurisdiction.
It’s Oct. 17, three days before early voting commences in Texas, and about 20 election judges—the folks who oversee polling sites—are spread out around an oblong training room in the Travis County clerk’s building in Austin, listening to an hour-long, rapid-fire lecture by a trainer named Alexa Buxkemper. The walls are lined with paraphernalia that most Americans see just once every two or four years—stacks of ballots, voting machines, old-model laptops that still process voter information. “Pick the correct voter,” Buxkemper says, rattling off the basics. “Collect 100 percent of statements of residence. Fill out all the forms completely, legibly. Give every voter the right ballot style.” And then, more pointedly: “Always follow the steps in the manual—don’t wing it. I hate to say, ‘Don’t think, just follow the manual,’ but we have sat around and done the thinking. So follow these steps.” The election judges nod solemnly and scribble notes. Most are over 60, and they’ve been through similar trainings before. They’ve run the polls during tough elections before, too. But they are nervous. Finally, interrupting the trainer’s staccato marching orders, a woman raises her hand and asks what’s on everyone’s mind: “Can they change the law on us again after we start?” ”Don’t even ask that question!” Buxkemper says, only half-joking. “I would just say be ready for anything.” This fall, “be ready for anything” has become the credo of local election offices in Texas and several states like it, where legal challenges to new voting laws have resulted in a steady stream of court rulings that have confused voters and forced elections administrators to invent new procedures on the fly. In recent weeks, as the election judges know, Texas’s voter-ID law was ruled discriminatory and unconstitutional by a federal District judge—and then abruptly reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. With fewer than 72 hours before polls open, the Supreme Court still hasn’t made a final call. The steps the election judges are being instructed to follow still could change by the time voters show up.
Supreme Court rulings forced last-minute changes in state voting procedures for the midterm elections across the country, but the battle over voting rules is far from over. Courts are still hearing arguments over voter ID and early voting laws, legal challenges that could reshuffle voting rules again before 2016, when a presidential election will probably increase voter turnout and long lines at polls. ”The cases are not over,” says Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California-Irvine and author of the Election Law Blog. “In a number of states, restrictions, which have been on hold or which were scheduled to be phased in, will be in effect. More states will pass new restrictive voting rules. And some states may pass rules making it easier to vote.”
• In Ohio, legislation shortened early voting and eliminated “Golden Week,” a time period in which voters could register and early-vote on the same day. The Supreme Court upheld the changes for the midterm election, but the case challenging the law must go to trial in federal court.
For far too many Americans, voting became more difficult or, in some cases, impossible in 2014. In Texas, Imani Clark, a Black state college student and client of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the lawsuit that declared Texas’s strict voter ID law unconstitutional, was unable to vote with her student ID as she had in the past. Thousands of other students like Imani were also disenfranchised. In Alabama, a 92-year-old great-grandmother was disfranchised by the secretary of state’s last-minute determination that a photo ID issued by public housing authorities is not acceptable ID for voting. She had previously voted with a utility bill. These were familiar stories in each of the 14 states with restrictive voting laws that took effect for the first time during this election season. The new laws include strict photo ID requirements, significant reductions to early voting, limits on same-day registration, and more. All had two things in common: They were reactionary responses to changing demographics and had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. If it were not for the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating June 2013 decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, many of these changes likely would have been blocked by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Indeed, Texas’s photo ID measure was previously blocked from going into effect for the 2012 elections by Section 5.
Connecticut elected a Democratic governor this year, but Tuesday was a bittersweet night for many state Democrats as Question 1, also known as the Early Voting Amendment, failed at the polls. The amendment, which garnered only 47.5 percent of the vote, would have allowed the General Assembly to expand access to absentee ballots and eliminate most restrictions on early voting in the state. Connecticut is currently one of only 13 states not to allow any form of early voting, whether by mail or in person. Throughout the country, early voting has often proved a partisan issue. Democrats tend to gain from early voting, as demographics more likely to lean Democratic are typically the beneficiaries of early voting. The amendment’s failure in the Nutmeg State did not come as a complete shock to many Connecticut residents and Yale students. Mila Rostain ’17, a member of the Yale College Democrats who had been involved with the push for the amendment, said she was not surprised by its defeat. “The people whom it helps are exactly the people who don’t come out in the midterm elections,” Mila said. The amendment would largely aid ethnic minorities and those with low incomes, for whom voting is typically more difficult, she said, but those groups tend not to vote en masse in midterm elections.
According to some civil-rights groups, voting on Tuesday was a bit of a mess. Changes to voting laws in more than a dozen states caused confusion, frustration, long lines and turned-away voters. Some people arrived at the polls in Texas without a valid photo-ID, while others in North Carolina were sent packing even though the state’s voter-ID law doesn’t take effect until 2016. Thousands of voters called hotlines complaining about inaccurate voter rolls, malfunctioning machines and bewildering new rules. Some volunteers at polling stations were reportedly just as flustered as everyone else. Such complaints are unsurprising. America wins few awards for administering orderly and streamlined elections. The way citizens register and vote is “still in the dark ages in many ways,” says Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Centre for Justice, a public-policy think-tank. Most states rely on a paper-based registration system, and many close registration weeks before election day. Few allow voters to vote early, which leads to crowding and last-minute hiccups at polling stations. Polling staff tend to be untrained volunteers, and many machines are either incredibly old or new and untested. Different states also have different voter laws, with little integration of voter data, which makes it tricky when people move.
Editorials: Did Voting Restrictions Determine the Outcomes of Key Midterm Races? | Ari Berman/The Nation
Bryan McGowan spent twenty-two years in the US Marine Corps, including four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. When he was stationed at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina from 2005 until 2010, McGowan used same-day registration to register and vote during the early voting period in the state. He relocated to Georgia in 2010 because of his military service and returned to North Carolina in 2014. On the first day of early voting this year, McGowan arrived at his new polling place in western North Carolina to update his registration and vote, like he had done in the 2008 presidential election, but this time he was turned away. North Carolina eliminated same-day registration as part of the sweeping voting restrictions enacted by the Republican legislature in the summer of 2013. The registration deadline had passed, and McGowan was unable to update his registration and vote. “All I want to do is cast my vote,” the disabled veteran said. After fighting for his country abroad, McGowan felt betrayed by not being able to vote when he returned home. Sadly, McGowan’s story was not atypical this election year. Voters in fourteen states faced new voting restrictions at the polls for first time in 2014—in the first election in nearly fifty years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The number of voters impacted by the new restrictions exceeded the margin of victory in close races for senate and governor in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Connecticut voters appear to have rejected a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would have eased restrictions on absentee voting. With 90 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday afternoon, 441,469 — or 53 percent — voted “no” on the ballot question, outnumbering the 395,309 — or 47 percent — who voted “yes.” Final figures were not available as of late Wednesday afternoon. Had it passed, the amendment would have given the legislature the authority to pass laws that would allow “no excuse” absentee voting, or allowing polls to be open on the Saturday before elections. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, advocates said changing the Constitution could increase voter turnout by allowing people to vote early and make voting more accessible. Opponents feared the change would lead to voter fraud and endanger the state’s election process. With the amendment’s defeat, current restrictions will stand: absentee voting is allowed only when a voter is sick on Election Day, outside the district, serving in the military, or has a religious obligation that keeps him or her from the polls.
Some longtime voters in Texas reported on Tuesday that they were refused a ballot because they lacked newly required photo identification. In North Carolina, voters who showed up at the wrong precinct were unable to vote, reflecting a new policy. And in Georgia, hundreds of frustrated people called a hotline to say they were unsure if their voter registrations had been processed, some of the thousands of would-be new voters who reportedly faced uncertainty. In many cases, the accounts seemed to reflect concerns raised by civic groups and civil rights leaders that new photo identification requirements in several states and cutbacks in early voting and same-day registration in others would deter significant numbers of people from participating in the elections. Most of the new policies were adopted by Republican legislatures in the name of electoral integrity, even though evidence of voter fraud has been negligible. They are opposed by Democrats who say tighter rules are aimed at discouraging minorities, poor people and college students, groups that tend to prefer Democrats, from voting. Many of the changes adopted in recent years “will make it harder for millions of Americans to participate,” said Wendy R. Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “But the problems of disenfranchisement don’t show up in a visible way,” Ms. Weiser added. “It’s people who don’t show up, or someone’s who’s turned away.”