As voters go to the polls on Super Tuesday, many will be casting ballots in states that have passed strict election laws that didn’t exist during the last presidential race.
Out of the 13 states holding primaries or caucuses, there are five where voters will face new rules: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The laws range from asking voters to present photo IDs at the polls to requiring proof of citizenship when registering to vote.
Voting experts say that primary voters tend to be of demographics relatively unaffected by such requirements, as they are typically older and wealthier. The primaries also tend to attract more white voters. Still, Super Tuesday could serve as an early test of how the new laws will play out in the general election in November. This presidential race will be the first since a divided Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act and triggered a number of states to pass stiffer requirements for voting.
“We will undoubtedly see some negative effects in the primaries and perhaps an early glimpse into what the bigger problems could look like come November,” said Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
On Tuesday, the new laws could have a bigger effect in the Democratic contests where “voters of color will be disproportionately affected by the new restrictions,” said Ari Berman, author of “Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is counting on minority voters, particularly in the South, to support her as she tries to secure the Democratic nomination. On Tuesday, six of 11 Democratic contests will take place in Southern states with large populations of black voters. Clinton has been raising the issue of voting rights for months, and her campaign’s top lawyer has filed lawsuits against new voting restrictions in several states.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department is waging legal battles across the country to stem the tide of the new laws.
“This is the first presidential election in the more than 50 years of the Voting Rights Act that the department’s ability to enforce the act has been so severely cut back,” said Vanita Gupta, who heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “Until Congress acts to restore the full protection of the act, we are fully committed to doing all that we can to make sure every eligible citizen has equitable access to a meaningful vote.”
Those who support the tougher voting laws have said they are cracking down on fraud and shoring up the legitimacy of this country’s elections.
Berman argues, though, that the new rules have nothing to do with voter fraud and everything to do with politics. Those who have studied the claims of voter fraud, he said, have found very few examples of voter impersonation.
“They are providing solutions to things where there’s not a problem,” he said.
The state of Texas, where the most delegates are at stake on Tuesday for candidates in both parties, has the most stringent voter-identification law in the nation, according to several election experts, and one that could cut deeply into the turnout of minority voters and young people — an issue for the Democratic contenders, Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who are courting those groups of voters.
Four years ago, the Justice Department blocked the law, signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry (R). Former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. (D) called it a “poll tax,” referring to fees that some Southern states used to try to disenfranchise blacks during the Jim Crow era.
Texas was the largest state that was covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required federal approval of any voting changes, because of Texas’s history of discrimination.
Texas then sued the Justice Department. After a week-long trial, a federal court in Washington also blocked the law, ruling that it would impose “strict, unforgiving burdens” on poor, minority voters. It was the first time that a federal court had blocked a voter-ID law.
The three-judge federal panel unanimously ruled in August 2012 that Texas had failed to show the law wouldn’t harm minority voters. The panel said the burden of obtaining a state voter ID certificate would weigh disproportionately on minorities living in poverty, with many having to travel as much as 200 to 250 miles round trip.
“A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote,” wrote David S. Tatel, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The next year, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling on the Voting Rights Act that in essence took away the power of the Justice Department to challenge potentially unfair voting laws before they are enacted.
The court did not strike down the Voting Rights Act or the provision that calls for the special scrutiny of states with a history of discrimination, such as Alabama and Texas. But it said Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to the requirements. Congress has not yet acted.
The same day as the Supreme Court decision, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) said the state would immediately enact its voter-ID law.
The legal wrangling continues. The Justice Department is awaiting a decision about whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, will hear the Texas voter-ID case en banc. In the meantime, a federal court in Texas found that 608,470 registered voters don’t have the voter IDs that the state now requires for voting. For example, residents can vote with their concealed-carry handgun licenses but not their state-issued student university IDs.
After the Supreme Court decision, other states also swiftly moved forward with voting restrictions, including Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina.
“Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID, and we should expect nothing less for the protection of our right to vote,” North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said after signing a bill that included a voter-ID requirement.
“They were all very brazen responses to that decision,” Weiser said. “It was: ‘Here we go, now that the yoke of the Voting Rights Act has been removed, we’re going to plow forward with these very controversial voting restrictions.’”
On Super Tuesday, voters in Virginia will be required to show a photo ID. Tennessee also has put in place a strict voter-ID requirement and reduced the time allotted for early voting. In Georgia, a Republican-led legislature also reduced the early-voting period from 45 days to 21 and cut early voting the weekend before Election Day.
While much of the national attention has focused on the eight states that have passed voter-ID laws since 2010, state legislatures have also passed many other voting restrictions.
Among the most controversial are the “proof of citizenship” laws in Alabama, Georgia, Arizona and Kansas that require residents to show documents, such as a birth certificate or passport, to register to vote.
A new voter-ID study by political scientists at the University of California at San Diego analyzed turnout in elections between 2008 and 2012 and found “substantial drops in turnout for minorities under strict voter ID laws.”
“These results suggest that by instituting strict photo ID laws, states could minimize the influence of voters on the left and could dramatically alter the political leaning of the electorate,” the study concluded.