As another federal election cycle heads to a close, Jim Crow’s ghost rises Steven Rosenfeld October 8, 2014
Anyone who pays attention to American election knows that the Republican Party’s favorite tactic to try on win on Election Day is to change the rules of who can vote and which ballots get counted.
This is what happened in presidential elections in Florida in 2000, in Ohio in 2004, and it is behind 2014’s ongoing courtroom fights over allowing same-day voter registration, imposing tougher voter ID requirements, narrowing early voting options, and counting provisional ballots turned in at the wrong table, and on and on.
As 2014’s campaigns enter its final stretch, federal and state courts are weighing in on a range of Republican-generated attempts to change the rules. These fights aren’t yet over, so it is hard to say whether this will be an election where most of these tactics will be shown the door or sustained. Here are six states where voting rights have been in play:
1. Ohio. Last week, one day before early voting was to begin, the U.S. Supreme Court, voted 5-4 along its usual divide to uphold a cut in the early voting pushed by that state’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted. While Ohio still has 28 days of early voting, its Republicans have long groused that on the very first weekend of that option Ohians could both register to vote—and cast ballots. That friendly window was closed by Ohio Republicans and locked shut by Supreme Court’s conservative majority, all appointed by Republican presidents.
2. Kansas.As most political junkies know, a half-dozen of 2014’s U.S. Senate races were already nail-biters over whether Democrats would lose their Senate majority before something surprising happened in Kansas. The Democrat in the race, Chad Taylor, dropped out, boosting Independent Greg Orman against incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. In response, the state’s partisan Republican Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, went to court to force Democrats to name another candidate. A state court told Kobach to back off.
3. North Carolina. This state had some of the South’s most progressive election laws until rightwingers took control of the Legislature and governor’s office and this year rolled back the clock on voting rights. Those moves have been tied up in court, with a federal appeals court suspending two of the more insidious changes: ending same-day voter registration, and not counting ballots turned in at the wrong precinct, which could just be a different table in a high school gym. Late Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Fourth Circuit’s decision, meaning the GOP’s new and restrictive rules will be in effect this fall.
4. Wisconsin. There are a handful of states where Republicans have used the myth of rampant voter fraud—one person voting many times—to impose tougher statewide ID requirements before getting a polling place ballot. Nevermind that this almost never happens, and if it does, whoever initials a poll book to get a ballot has essentially signed a confession for the cops. This tactic is intended to deter first-time voters, like students and poorer people, from voting, as they’re seen by Republicans as supporting Democrats.
In Wisconsin, where the union-busting Republican Gov. Scott Walker is seeking a second term, the GOP has narrowed what forms of ID can be used to get a ballot. Voting rights groups have sued to block that, but a federal appeals court just deadlocked on whether to reconsider an earlier ruling that left the tougher ID law in place. That has pushed voting rights advocates to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Its response is expected any day now.
5. Arkansas. This is another state seen as determining whether the U.S. Senate will be held by Democrats or Republicans for the last two years of Obama’s presidency. Here, too, the GOP-controlled state govermment imposed tougher voter ID standards, which were put on hold by a trial court. That state’s Supreme Court recently heard arguments over whether suspending the new law was proper.
6. Texas. While Texas is not seen as affecting the national political landscape in 2014, Republicans in that state also toughened voter ID requirements. Texas has a very contentious governor’s race, where Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis, known for trying to stop a major anti-abortion bill that passed, is challenging the rightwing Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Voting rights advocates in Texas sued in federal court to overturn the voter ID law, citing Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. That case has been watched by civil rights groups across the country, because that section is one part of the landmark law that the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservatives did not gut several years ago. That decision is also expected soon.
These voting rights fights are filled with political absurdities, namely, that the democratic process is being extensively corrupted by fraud—when its not; and the remedy lies in over-policing the polls, which only complicates the process, leads to fewer people voting, and more people losing confidence in democratic institutions.
While it remains to be seen what more will unfold before this fall’s elections, it’s worth noting that the biggest potential breakdown in the process isn’t with voter registration and illegal voting. It’s that much of the machinery in use today to cast and count votes are all-electronic, paperless, aging systems based on Windows 2000-era software. It’s old, unreliable, cannot be audited for accurate recounts, and no replacement is in sight.
But you won’t hear about that Republicans who rant about mythical voter fraud.