Decades after many Americans fought, bled and died for the right to vote, millions of voters could be once again be turned away from the polls this year because of a regime of voting laws that disproportionately burden minorities, the elderly, immigrants and the poor. With both presidential and congressional elections in November, advocates warn that the stakes are high. “Basically, all hell is breaking loose,” said Katherine Culliton-González, director of the voter protection program at the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, who spent five years working on voter issues at the U.S. Department of Justice. “Unless you are in the elite — and that doesn’t even mean in the middle class — voter restrictions are going to impact you, one way or another.” This year’s presidential election will be the first one held after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the historic Voting Rights Act in 2013, which required federal pre-clearance of voting law changes for states with a history of voter discrimination. Without those protections in place, pending legal battles over the fairness and constitutionality of recently enacted voting laws will get unprecedented scrutiny this year, advocates on both sides have said. If the courts uphold, for example, a voter ID requirement in North Carolina or allow Texas to redraw districts and reduce political power in heavily immigrant communities, they’d potentially be denying millions the right to vote and be equally represented by their state lawmakers. “Voting laws seem to be changing every day, and that in and of itself is disenfranchising to so many Americans,” González said.
Modern voter ID laws, those that require Americans to present some form of government-issued ID before receiving an election ballot, have been adopted in Democratic and Republican statehouses since 2000, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But increasingly stricter requirements in the years that followed have asked voters for specific forms of photo and non-photo ID that racial minorities, immigrants and the poor were less likely to have on-hand compared to affluent whites, studies showed. Federal law has allowed these requirements, as long as lawmakers prove that there is no undue burden to any eligible voter.
Voting rights advocates said Republicans championed voter ID laws to preserve their influence by limiting turnout for their Democratic rivals who tend to appeal to black, Latino and low-income voters. The laws were passed against the backdrop of an increasingly diverse nation, in which whites are estimated to be the minority race in 2043, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.