Earlier this year, voting rights advocates foresaw a cloud over this year’s election because new voting laws in Republican-led states tightened the rules for casting ballots and reduced the time for early voting. But with the election less than a month away, it’s now clear those laws will have little impact. A series of rulings has blocked or weakened the laws as judges — both Republicans and Democrats — stopped measures that threatened to bar legally registered voters from polling places in the November election. “Courts see their role as the protectors of the core right to vote,” said Ned Foley, an election law expert at Ohio State University. The laws were the product of a Republican sweep in the 2010 election. The GOP took full control in such states as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, and soon adopted changes in their election laws. Some states told registered voters they must show a current photo identification, such as a driver’s license, even if they did not drive. Others, including Florida and Ohio, reduced the time for early voting or made it harder for college students to switch their registrations.
Republicans defended the laws as protections against fraud. But advocates for increased access to the polls cast them as “voter suppression” laws that could prevent tens of thousands of poor and elderly voters, racial minorities and students from casting ballots. And Democrats, who can usually count on support from these voters, worried that the laws could even sway the outcome in the presidential race if it were close in key states. Since the disputed presidential election of 2000 and the Supreme Court’s Bush vs. Gore decision, increasingly partisan disputes over election laws have arisen. In general, Republicans have called for tighter restrictions, while Democrats have opted for looser and more generous rules. The Constitution gives states the power to set the rules for elections, and judges usually uphold regulations adopted by state legislatures. But this year, judges took a more skeptical view of regulations that could stand in the way of voters.