Voters in red and blue states could have very different experiences in 2016. Millions more Californians could head to the polls for the first time next year, thanks to a law passed by the Democratic legislature and signed Oct. 10 by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, that will automatically register eligible citizens when they renew or obtain a driver’s license. In Illinois, a new provision allows voters to register electronically when they visit various state agencies. And in Delaware, some residents with criminal records will regain the right to vote in the presidential election due to a constitutional amendment passed by the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature and signed by its Democratic governor. In Republican-controlled states, the story is different. North Carolina has instituted a new voter ID requirement. North Dakota has narrowed the forms of identification voters can present to gain access to the polls. And Ohio’s GOP-controlled legislature has instituted a new set of voting restrictions since the 2012 election, including shorter early voting hours.
The ballot has been a political battleground since the dawn of the republic. But the voting-rights arms race that ramped up during the Obama Administration will be on full display in November 2016, when 15 states will have new restrictions in place for the first time during a presidential election. “We have states that are going backwards,” says Katherine Culliton-González, director of voter protection at the nonpartisan Advancement Project, “and we have states that are advancing voting rights.”
Since 2010, 21 state legislatures have enacted new laws to curtail ballot access, while 23 others plus the District of Columbia have passed laws to expand it over the past three years. The seesaw struggle reflects efforts by partisan state legislatures to reshape the makeup of the electorate. In most cases, blue states have pushed to expand voting rights, while many of the new restrictions have come in red states.