The law may sometimes lie in suspended animation — like it is now, today over voting rights — but politics always moves relentlessly ahead. So while the justices of the United States Supreme Court contemplate the fate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval of election law changes in certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination, and the nation awaits the Court’s judgment in Shelby County v. Holder, lawmakers in dozens of states around the country have been moving forward with related legislation that would restrict the right to vote for millions of Americans. The results of a new Brennan Center survey released last week would be remarkable in any year — so much legislative effort designed to make it harder for citizens to vote! — but the statistics are particularly compelling this year because of the pendency of the strong constitutional challenge to the preclearance provision of the 1965 federal voting law. State lawmakers aren’t waiting to see how Shelby County turns out. And they aren’t chastened by their losses in federal court in 2012.
First, the good news. A number of states have introduced measures to improve access to voting. Lawmakers in Florida and New Hampshire, for example, two states notorious for their recent narrowing of voter access, have voted to reverse some of the more restrictive rules put in place in 2012. Voters in Wisconsin just last week voted to keep the state’s same-day registration law. And hundreds of so-called “reform” bills are pending in state houses across the country.
Now the bad news. Since the beginning of 2013, the Brennan Center reports, at least 80 restrictive voting bills have been introduced in 31 states. Sixty-six of those bills are still pending in 26 states and 27 such measures in 14 states are moving forward in state houses from sea to shining sea. Lawmakers in six of the nine states fully covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act have introduced restrictive voting laws. So have lawmakers in three of the six states that are partially covered by Section 5.
Since January, at least 22 states have introduced measures requiring photo identification at polls. At least seven states are considering bills to reduce early-voting or in-person absentee voting periods. No fewer than nine states are considering measures to limit voter registration. Some of these measures no doubt are constitutional. Others may not be. But all of them are likely to have a disproportionate impact upon minority citizens, the elderly, students, and indigent citizens.