Voting rights groups are struggling to hold back a tide of new laws that are likely to make it harder for millions of Americans to vote in the presidential election in November and could distort the outcome of the race for the White House. Since January 2011, 19 states have passed a total of 24 laws that create hurdles between voters and the ballot box. Some states are newly requiring people to show government-issued photo cards at polling stations. Others have whittled down early voting hours, imposed restrictions on registration of new voters, banned people with criminal records from voting or attempted to purge eligible voters from the electoral roll. The assault on voter rights is particularly acute in key swing states where the presidential race is likely to be settled. Five of the nine key battleground states identified by the Republican strategist Karl Rove have introduced laws that could suppress turnout – Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia. Between them, the states that have imposed restrictions account for the lion’s share of the 270 electoral college votes that Barack Obama or Mitt Romney must win to take the presidency. Sixteen of the states that have passed new voter restrictions between them hold 214 electoral votes. “We are seeing a dramatic assault on voting rights, the most significant pushback on democratic participation that we’ve seen in decades,” said Wendy Weiser of the non-partisan thinktank the Brennan Center for Justice, and the co-author of the definitive study of US voter suppression in the 2012 election cycle. “These laws could make it harder for millions of eligible American citizens to participate, particularly in swing states.”
The epicentre of the attack sweeping across America is Florida, which has a long history of voter suppression. With a famously evenly balanced population that in 2000 elected George Bush by an official majority of only 537 out of almost 6 million votes cast, even relatively minor distortion of electoral turnout could have huge implications not just for the result in Florida but, given the state’s prominent role in determining the outcome of recent presidential elections, the whole of the US, and – by extension – the world.
Florida Republicans have made several blatant attempts to suppress turnout this election cycle. One of the first acts of governor Rick Scott when he took office in 2011 was to reimpose what is in effect a lifelong voting ban on anyone convicted of a felony – including 1.3 million Floridians who have fully completed their sentences. “There are over a million people in Florida who no longer have the full rights of citizenship and right to vote,” said Baylor Johnson of Florida ACLU. “One million people – that’s the White House for a generation, which gives you an idea of why they are trying so hard to stop people voting.”