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Voter ID laws scrutinized on Election Day

Voting rights advocates are primarily concerned about people having equal, unfettered access to the polls -- Tuesday's elections and beyond.

By
ZP Heller
The polls will be watched carefully on Election Day in states with controversial voter ID laws. Derek Hatfield/Shutterstock
The polls will be watched carefully on Election Day in states with controversial voter ID laws. Derek Hatfield/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- On Election Day, laws restricting the right to vote remain controversial, prompting voting rights advocates to scrutinize the polls in four states.

The 2014 midterms are boiling down to a battle over control of the deeply partisan Senate, though numerous state and local races are also on ballots across the country.

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Restrictions involving voter ID, voter registration, early voting and others have become symbolic of such political divisiveness. Yet voting rights advocates are primarily concerned about people having equal, unfettered access to the polls -- in Tuesday's elections and beyond.

"The integrity of our elections is sacred," said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project. "There are cynical hucksters out there who have decided this is the way to win elections. But if you look at the evidence, you see they're not necessary."

Voter Identifications Laws in Effect in 2014 (Credit: NCSL)

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that supports legislators nationwide, the number of states with some form of voter ID legislation has jumped between 2000 and 2014, from 14 states to 34. (However, voter ID laws in three of those states aren't in place for Tuesday's elections.)

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"It has been a steady increase," explained Wendy Underhill, NCSL elections program manager, adding that "strict voter ID laws are the ones that are often taken to court and are worrisome to some voting rights advocates."

As New York University's Brennan Center for Justice indicated in its report, "The State of Voting in 2014," there has been a 21-state boom in adopting new voting restrictions in the wake of the 2010 midterms -- when Republicans scored major victories at the congressional, state and gubernatorial levels. That report also indicated that many controversial restrictions have passed since the Supreme Court decided last year to cut a critical provision of the Voting Rights Act.

In October, an academic study titled "A Principle or a Strategy? Voter Identification Laws and Partisan Competition in the American States," published in Political Research Quarterly, focused on the rise in voter ID laws between 2001 and 2012.

"Voter ID laws have evolved from a valence issue into a partisan battle, where Republicans defend them as a safeguard against fraud while Democrats indict them as a mechanism of voter suppression," the study reported.

The study looked at voter ID laws from a coalition standpoint. Whereas Democrats have been able to appeal to minority voters and broaden their base, as the study suggested, the GOP has been less successful. The study concluded, "the GOP appears to have opted for coalition maintenance instead of coalition expansion, by embracing several restrictive voting reforms whose true purpose is to marginally curtail the participation of voters typically aligned with the Democratic party."

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In particular, voting rights advocates are up in arms over the socioeconomic and racial factors of these new restrictions. Ho said, "These restrictive laws will really affect lower-income and poor voters. These are the folks who will have a hard time paying $20 for a birth certificate to get an ID, or who used early voting because they have difficulties taking time off from work to vote on Election Day."

Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, highlighted the fact that 7 out of 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008 have new voter restrictions. And 8 of 12 states with the highest Latino population growth between 2000 and 2010 have adopted similar legislation. Recent studies from UMass-Boston and the University of California support the Brennan Center's findings.

"Research shows restrictions make it harder for minorities to vote," Perez said. "And states with higher African-American turnout and Hispanic population growth were more likely to cut back on voting. Politicians cannot be allowed to manipulate the rules to make it harder for certain people to vote."

Much debate, however, continues to surround whether these laws actually suppress voter turnout.

Seth Mckee, co-author of the study and an associate political science professor at Texas Tech University, said, "Perhaps the most interesting thing about these strict voter ID laws is that there isn't strong evidence that they greatly deter participation. To be sure, surveys of who has the proper ID make it clear that Democratic-leaning groups are much less likely to have it (e.g., African Americans, Hispanics, and lower income citizens). But it is safe to say that the rather small portion of the electorate that lacks proper ID is also much less likely to vote in the first place."

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As McKee assessed, voter ID laws can even have the opposite impact of their designed intentions.

"So with respect to the impact on turnout," McKee said, "a confounding factor in this fight is that strict photo ID provisions may not have the intended effect of suppressing the vote for targeted groups because of the backlash among Democrats and their affiliates who respond by mobilizing these same voters."

No additional states have adopted voter ID laws this year, with most of the action coming from the courts.

Ho said, "This year, the ACLU won cases that blocked voter ID laws in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arkansas for the November elections. We are also litigating early voting and registration cases in Ohio and North Carolina that will go to trial next year."

Still, even where laws have been blocked, concerns persist regarding voter confusion at the polls. And there's a chance laws that have been blocked for this election could still be revisited going forward.

Here is a look at four states the ACLU and The Brennan Center will be watching closely on Election Day:

Texas

In early October, a federal judge blocked the state's strict voter ID law, ruling it was tantamount to a poll tax. The judge said over 600,000 voters -- the majority of whom are African American and Latino -- would likely lose their votes because they lack sufficient photo identification.

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"In Texas," Perez said, "it was expressly found that the law was enacted with discriminatory intent."

Texas, with a well-documented history of voter discrimination, appealed the decision, claiming the reform enacted in 2011 would prevent voter fraud. A couple of weeks later, the Supreme Court ruled Texas could implement its voter ID law on Tuesday.

North Carolina

North Carolina's voter ID law, passed in 2013, won't fully take effect until 2016. Yet this is what Perez called a "soft rollout," as many restrictions are already in place. The state effectively reduced the early voting period -- which could affect over 2 million people -- and altogether eliminated same-day registrations, as well as voting outside of your district.

"When you eliminate early voting days, you compress voting," Ho said. "It's unrealistic to think everyone will simply adjust."

Last year, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against North Carolina, arguing its "voter suppression law" unduly targeted African Americans, 70 percent of whom voted early in 2008 and 2012.

Ohio

Like North Carolina, Ohio greatly reduced early voting this year, including cutbacks for evenings and weekends. The state legislature also opted to cut a six-day early voting period called "Golden Week," during which people could register and cast ballots simultaneously. Moreover, lawmakers altered rules for casting absentee and provisional ballots.

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And just as in North Carolina, new voting reforms in Ohio prompted the ACLU to sue. While a federal judge ruled in early September to bring back early voting, the Supreme Court later restored those restrictions.

Wisconsin

The ACLU won a major legal battle in Wisconsin last month, when the Supreme Court blocked the state from implementing a photo voter ID law. The organization argued that about 300,000 Wisconsin voters lacked identification that would have been acceptable under the law, which initially passed in 2012 but had been blocked by legal challenges until judges ruled in September it could take effect.

Despite the ruling, however, confusion could prevail at the polls.

"Some people may be misinformed in these states," said the ACLU's Ho. "We do have some concerns about that. But if there is confusion, best to err on the side of letting people vote."

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