Politico led this morning with a piece arguing that Mitt Romney’s clay feet on the subject of national security threaten to turn him into John Kerry. I don’t quite buy the comparison, however Kerry-like Mr Romney may be in his stiffness and aloofness; Mr Romney never claimed national security as a core competency, as Mr Kerry did. Yet this is part of an ongoing narrative that says this election is like 2004, in which a relatively unpopular and vulnerable incumbent won because the out-party overestimated voters’ distaste for the incumbent and nominated a dreadful candidate. The bases of both parties were gripped by a visceral disdain for the president that voters at large simply did not share. Both Mr Kerry and Mr Romney had fairly easy rides to the nomination: for all the ginned-up primary drama this year, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich stood no better chance of becoming president than did Howard Dean or Dennis Kucinich. But if the campaign looks like 2004, Ethan Bronner makes a far more persuasive case that its aftermath may more closely resemble 2000. The thicket of new voting laws enacted over the past four years—mostly by Republicans, and most of them with the effect, if not the intent, of making it harder for voters who belong to Democratic-leaning blocs to cast their ballots—will likely provoke a flurry of court challenges if the election is as close as it looks as though it might be. Those challenges have already begun. Florida lost in its effort to restrict early voting, as did Ohio. A federal court ruled that Texas’s voter-ID law fell afoul of the Voting Rights Act for imposing “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty.” Pennsylvania’s voter-ID law, on the other hand, was upheld (the state supreme court will hear appeals on Thursday).
Before the fights after the vote, however, come the Election Day challenges. Demos and Common Cause, two left-leaning think tanks, released a report yesterday looking at the rights afforded voters in ten states (some swing, such as Florida, North Carolina and Virginia; others, such as Texas, are simply big) when their eligibility is challenged. For anyone who believes that democracy is at its best when as many citizens as possible participate, the report makes for depressing reading. The national elections coordinator of True the Vote, for instance, a Texas-based group that wants to train 1m observers to fan out around the country as a guard against voter fraud (an exceedingly rare phenomenon) has said that he wants to make voters feel that they are “driving and seeing the police follow” them. Its parent group, the King Street Patriots, was accused of intimidating voters in predominantly minority districts in Houston. The president of Judicial Watch, another conservative group raising alarms about voter fraud, says Barack Obama wants “to register the food-stamp army to vote for him” (if an army, as is often said, marches on its stomach, the food-stamp army should inspire little fear).
Beyond this unpleasant rhetoric lie some real dangers for voting rights. In 2010 poll-watchers in Harris County, home of True the Vote, were accused of “hovering over” voters and “disrupting lines of voters who were waiting to cast their ballots” (no charges were filed).Voters in Florida can have their eligibility challenged for any reason, and challenged voters must vote provisionally and then must present proof of eligibility to have her vote counted. Voters in Missouri can be challenged at any time. Anyone can challenge a Pennsyvlania voter’s eligibility, and while the challenger must provide a reason for the challenge, he does not have to provide evidence supporting that reason. Eligibility challenges are often based on residence—that is, a voter does not live at the address given on the voter rolls—and groups have often used “caging”, in which mass mailings are sent out and returned mail used to challenge a voter’s eligibility—to purge voter rolls. This is of particular concern in states such as Florida and Arizona, which have high rates of foreclosure. Federal legislation creating uniform standards for challenging voters’ eligibility, making registration easier and outlawing caging has been introduced. It stands about as much chance of becoming law as I do of starting for the Atlanta Hawks (I’m 5’7″, 37 years old and have the speed and vertical leap of an armoire).