The national trauma of the 2000 presidential election and its messy denouement in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court made, for a brief moment, election reform a cause célèbre. The scrutiny of election administration went far beyond the vote counting and recounting that dominated headlines. The Florida saga cast a harsh light on the whole country’s archaic and fragmented system of election administration, exemplified by a state where hundreds of thousands of citizens were disenfranchised by incompetent and malicious voter purges, Reconstruction-era felon voting bans, improper record-keeping, and deliberate deception and harassment.
The outrage generated by the revelations of 2000 soon spent itself or was channeled into other avenues, producing, as a sort of consolation prize, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, an underambitious and underfunded law mainly aimed at preventing partisan mischief in vote counting. The fundamental problem of accepting 50 different systems for election administration, complicated even more in states like Florida where local election officials control most decisions with minimal federal, state or judicial oversight, was barely touched by HAVA. As Judith Browne-Dianis, of the civil rights group the Advancement Project, told me: “The same cracks in the system have persisted.”
But most politicians in both parties paid lip service to the idea that every American citizen had a right to vote, and that higher voting levels of the sort taken for granted in most democracies would be a good thing. “Convenience voting” via mail and early on-site balloting, or simply liberalized “absentee” voting, spread rapidly throughout the last decade, often as a way to minimize Election Day confusion or chicanery. In Florida itself, Republican Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist relaxed and then abolished the state’s practice of disenfranchising nonviolent felons for a period of time after their release.
No more. In the wake of the 2010 elections, Republican governors and legislatures are engaging in a wave of restrictive voting legislation unlike anything this country has seen since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which signaled the defeat of the South’s long effort to prevent universal suffrage. This wave of activism is too universal to be a coincidence, and too broad to reflect anything other than a general determination to restrict the franchise.
Millions of voters are affected. In Florida new Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation reversing Crist’s order automatically restoring the voting rights of nonviolent ex-felons. In one fell swoop, Scott extinguished the right to vote for 97,000 Florida citizens and placed more than a million others in danger of disenfranchisement. In a close contest for the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes, such measures could be as crucial to the outcome as the various vote suppression efforts of 2000.
As Ari Berman explained in an excellent recent summary of these developments for Rolling Stone, restrictive legislation, which has been introduced in 38 states and enacted (so far) in at least 12, can be divided into four main categories: restrictions on voter registration drives by nonpartisan, nonprofit civic and advocacy groups; cutbacks in early voting opportunities; new, burdensome identification requirements for voting; and reinstitution of bans on voting by ex-felons.