Voter suppression efforts may have changed the outcomes of some of the closest races last week. And if the Supreme Court lets these laws stand, they will continue to distort election results going forward. The days of Jim Crow are officially over, but poll-tax equivalents are newly thriving, through restrictive voter registration and ID requirements, shorter poll hours and various other restrictions and red tape that cost Americans time and money if they wish to cast a ballot. As one study by a Harvard Law School researcher found, the price for obtaining a legally recognized voter identification card can range from $75 to $175, when you include the costs associated with documentation, travel and waiting time. (For context, the actual poll tax that the Supreme Court struck down in 1966 was just $1.50, or about $11 in today’s dollars.) Whatever the motivation behind such new laws — whether to cynically disenfranchise political enemies or to nobly slay the (largely imagined) scourge of voter fraud — their costs to voters are far from negligible.
It’s still early to definitively quantify the effects that these laws had on national turnout or on the outcomes of individual races. Initial estimates suggesting that turnout rates sank to their lowest level since 1942 look pretty damning, but so many factors can affect turnout (weather, ballot initiatives, the perceived closeness of races, etc.) that it’s hard to isolate the effects of a single change. More data and statistical analysis expected next year will help.
In the meantime, some back-of-the-envelope calculations from Wendy Weiser — director of the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice — should at least give us pause: Right now, it looks like the margin of victory in some of the most competitive races around the country was as big as the likely “margin of disenfranchisement,” as Weiser puts it. That is, more people were newly denied the right to vote than actually cast deciding ballots.