As the 2016 election season officially kicks off next week, beginning with the Iowa caucus on Monday, voters in several states are preparing to cast ballots under stricter laws for the first time. Over the past five years, more than 18 states have passed laws to impose restrictions on voters’ access to the ballot, according to a FRONTLINE analysis of voting laws nationwide. Even as at least six states have expanded access to the ballot, introducing automatic voter registration and online voting, these states have cut early-voting hours, limited felons’ ability to vote and imposed strict voter ID laws. That includes several key swing states, such as North Carolina, which passed a comprehensive voting bill in 2013, and Ohio, which passed a law to reduce early-voting days one year later. The most controversial of these laws are those requiring identification at the polls — usually a photo ID. That’s largely because support is split along partisan lines. Republicans tend to favor them, arguing the laws guard against voter fraud. Democrats, meanwhile, have pointed out that new restrictions are more likely to prevent some voters, in particular African-Americans and Latinos, from casting ballots.
Several of these laws were passed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to overturn a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which blocked states with a history of discrimination from imposing laws that federal officials found discriminatory. After that decision, five of those states — Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia — implemented voter ID laws, bolstering critics’ concerns and in some cases, spurring court challenges.
There’s little evidence of much voter impersonation fraud — when people misrepresent themselves at the polls — although proponents of these laws argue that even one case is cause for concern. A 2012 analysis by News21, a journalism project at Arizona State University, found 10 cases of voter impersonation fraud since 2000.
But the disparate impact of voter ID laws — whether they prevent people from voting — has also been difficult to measure. Several states have estimated how many people might be disenfranchised by their laws — usually hundreds of thousands of voters. But tracking those who were discouraged from showing up or turned away at the polls is more complicated. The best attempt so far, an analysis by the Government Accountability Office in 2014, found that from 2008 to 2012, turnout declined by a few percentage points more in two states, Kansas and Tennessee, once they imposed voter ID laws, than in other states.