First of seven parts
CINCINNATI - With the presidential election less than three months away, millions of Americans will be navigating new requirements for voting - if they can vote at all - as state leaders implement dozens of new restrictions that could make it more difficult to cast a ballot.
Since the last presidential election in 2012, politicians in 20 states have passed 37 different voting requirements that they said were needed to prevent voter fraud, a News21 analysis found. More than a third of those changes require voters to show specified government-issued photo IDs at the polls or reduce the number of acceptable IDs required by preexisting laws.
"We have two worldviews: the people that think voter fraud is rampant and the people who want to push the narrative that it's hard to vote. The bottom line is, neither is true," said Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, who has been sued several times over his state's removal of some voters from the registration rolls, elimination of same-day registration, and curbs to early voting. "I believe that both political parties are trying to push a narrative that suits their agenda."
Adding to the uncertainty for millions of voters, not all the changes may be in place for the November election because some were limited or overturned by court decisions still subject to appeal.
The new voting requirements, enacted in states mostly in the South and Midwest, were nine times more likely to have been passed by Republican legislatures than those controlled by Democrats, and almost five times more likely to have been signed by a GOP governor, the News21 analysis found.
In addition to requiring voter ID, they reduced the number of days voters can cast ballots in person before an election day, placed new restrictions on voter-registration drives, eliminated opportunities to register and vote on the same day, or moved up deadlines to register and still vote on election day.
Republican-controlled Texas and Wisconsin passed the strictest voter ID laws, while North Carolina and Ohio are among those that eliminated same-day registration and reduced early voting days.
"These laws can be explained by partisanship and by race," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal civil rights advocacy group. "It's hard to reconcile these actual laws with the stated purpose. The more reasonable and likely explanation is political self-interest. Voting laws are a way to restrict voters you think are more likely to vote for the other side."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an early 2016 Republican presidential candidate, told News21 that such criticisms were unfair. "It's a discriminatory statement to say that in today's society, people regardless of race or status aren't able to get photo ID, particularly when the state provides it for free," he said.
Days earlier, a federal court ruled that, for the November election, Wisconsin must offer those without photo ID the option of signing an affidavit swearing to their identity, a decision that was overturned by a federal appeals court.
Those were part of a flurry of court rulings in late July and early August that struck down, weakened, or altered new voting requirements in Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, and North Dakota because, the courts concluded, the laws would disenfranchise people of color. In some cases, judges ruled that the laws' discriminatory effect was intentional.
By contrast, some Democratic-controlled states, mostly in the West and New England, have passed laws that gave voters the option to register every time they walk into a motor vehicles office or at the polls on election day, made it easier to vote early, or have converted their elections to entirely vote-by-mail.
A state court judge struck down Pennsylvania's voter ID law in 2014, ruling that the law unreasonably burdened citizens' right to vote.
New Jersey does not require ID to vote. Gov. Christie said last week that objections to voter ID laws had contributed to "an underlying concern among some people" about the fairness of the election system.
"There are people, I'm confident, not only in this state but in all the other 49 states, who are voting who are not supposed to be voting," Christie said. "How you quantify that . . . I think would be open to debate."
The ongoing political and legal wars over voting rights date to the mid-2000s, when the first new state voting requirements were enacted. Their number greatly increased after the 2010 off-year election, in which Republicans more than doubled the number of states they controlled - from nine to 20 - with majorities in state legislatures and the governor's party, according to a News21 analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats, by comparison, lost control of five states, going from 16 to 11. Party control remained divided in the other states.
A 2014 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that laws requiring specific kinds of voter ID in Kansas and Tennessee depressed voter turnout in those states in 2012, with African Americans and young voters disproportionately affected. Ten state-specific and nationwide studies within the GAO report found that African Americans and Latinos were always less likely to have the required voter ID than whites, and Native Americans and Asian Americans were frequently at a similar disadvantage.
Richard Hasen, an expert in voting-law trends and a professor of political science and law at the University of California, Irvine, said he believed the nation was at a turning point because of the recent court decisions overturning new voting requirements in some states.
"In the past, courts seemed to be divided on partisan and ideological lines on how to approach these cases, but in 2012 and now in 2016 we see the courts becoming skeptical of what appears to me to be Republican overreaches in making it harder to register and to vote," he said. The court decisions could deter more states from instituting similar laws, Hasen added.
However, a June report by a collection of civil rights advocacy groups, including the ACLU and the NAACP, cited problems with minority and low-income voter access in the presidential primaries of several states that had implemented new voting requirements. These "warning signs," the groups said, indicated that the new laws could still affect the outcome of November's presidential election.
Some states put new voting requirements in place only after the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case negated the provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required them to clear such changes in advance with the Justice Department. For example, Texas enacted one of the strictest photo ID laws in the country in 2011, only to have its implementation blocked by the federal government. But on the same day in 2013 on which the Shelby County decision was handed down, state officials announced that the ID law would finally be enforced. While it has been ruled to be discriminatory four times by federal courts, it was kept in place while the state appealed those decisions.
"We think it's perfectly reasonable when you need to show a photo to pick up your kids from school, sometimes to pick up your pet from the kennel, that it's OK to show a photo to prove that you are the person who is voting," Republican Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a coauthor of the voter ID law, said.
The plaintiffs in the Texas court case argued that the law amounts to a modern poll tax because many voters without photo ID are low-income people who, without driver's licenses, faced trips of 90 minutes or more via public transportation to government offices to pay for and obtain the required forms of ID.
The Shelby County decision also undermined the Justice Department program that had monitored elections in states and localities previously covered under the Voting Rights Act. Now, Justice can send observers only to where they are ordered by a federal court. Otherwise they must get local permission to enter polling places. There are just seven counties or cities in five states that will fall under court-ordered observation for the November election, according to a Justice spokesman, compared with the 11 states where observers formerly had authority.
Steven H. Wright, a federal observer coordinator for the Department of Justice from 2007 until 2012, said this will leave a "gaping hole" in the government's ability to investigate and sue over unjust election practices.
"If you call a polling place and you ask, 'Are you complying with federal law?' they're going to say, 'Yes,' because no one is going to admit they're violating federal law. The only way [to make sure] is to have people in the polls."