Donald Trump has made clear he’s a big supporter of strict voting laws. He worries that people can “sneak in through the cracks” of the system and vote “many, many times,” and that “illegal immigrants” are voting. “Look, you’ve got to have real security with the voting system,” Trump has said. That attitude makes sense. Trump may be trailing in the polls, and his cash-strapped campaign may be struggling to build a viable operation in key swing states. But the new wave of Republican-backed restrictions on voting — which look set to keep Democratic voters from the polls — could wind up being Trump’s ace in the hole if the race is close this fall. Tight voting laws also could boost the GOP in a host of House, Senate, governor, and state legislative races. That’s in part because many of the states that have imposed the strictest voting rules — think Wisconsin with its controversial ID law, or North Carolina, with a multipronged measure that critics call a “monster voter suppression law” — are pivotal battlegrounds. It’s also because minorities and young people — the very voters who are most turned off by Trump and the GOP, and on whom Hillary Clinton will be counting on for a strong turnout — are the ones most likely to be tripped up by barriers to the polls.
It’s impossible to predict just how many eligible voters will be kept from the polls by this nationwide array of obstacles (though, based on what we know, we can say how many illegal votes will be stopped: roughly zero). But, conservatively, it could be several hundred thousand — potentially enough to swing a close race to Trump.
That brings up a troubling question: Even if polls show Clinton ahead as Election Day approaches, how much do we need to adjust our predictions to account for the effect of new restrictions? This year’s presidential election will be the first in more than half a century without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, which had its most effective plank invalidated by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. A remarkable report released earlier this month by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund detailed the numerous restrictive laws and rule changes, from statewide voter ID to local-level schemes to move polling places, that Shelby has allowed.
Another recent report, this one by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, concluded: “In 2016, it is entirely possible that the presidency, control of the Senate, and a number of governorships could be determined by the voter discrimination made possible by Shelby.” But as devastating as the weakening of the Voting Rights Act has been, the threat is broader still: Among the presidential swing-states that have cracked down hardest on voting have been Wisconsin, and, to a lesser extent, Ohio. Neither was directly affected by Shelby.