CINCINNATI — Pivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing significant new electoral restrictions on registering and voting that go beyond the voter identification requirements that have caused fierce partisan brawls.
The bills, laws, and administrative rules — some of them tried before — shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote.
Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin this winter pushed through measures limiting the time polls are open, in particular cutting into weekend voting favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before an election.
Democrats in North Carolina are scrambling to fight back against the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, passed by Republicans there last year. The measures, taken together, sharply reduce the number of early voting days and establish rules that make it more difficult for people to register to vote, cast provisional ballots or, in a few cases, vote absentee.
In all, nine states have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013. Most have to do with voter ID laws.
Other states are considering mandating proof of citizenship, like a birth certificate or a passport, after a federal court judge recently upheld such laws passed in Arizona and Kansas. Because many poor people do not have either and because documents can take time and money to obtain, Democrats say the ruling makes it far more difficult for people to register.
Voting specialists say the impact of the measures on voter turnout remains unclear. Many of the measures have yet to take effect and a few will not take effect until 2016. But at a time when Democrats are on the defensive over health care reform and are being significantly outspent by conservative donors like the Koch brothers, the changes pose another potential hurdle for Democratic candidates this year.
Republicans defend the measures, saying Democrats are overstating their impact for partisan reasons. The new rules, Republicans say, help prevent fraud, save money, and bring greater uniformity to a patchwork election system.
“We think they’re stoking these things for political gain,” said Alex M. Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party in Ohio. “We think there’s an effort here to rally the Democratic base in a year that they otherwise wouldn’t be rallying.”
Democrats and other critics of the laws say that in the face of shifting demographics, Republicans are trying to alter the rules and shape the electorate in their favor. Those most affected by the restrictions are minorities and the urban poor, who tend to vote Democratic.
“What we see here is a total disrespect and disregard for constitutional protections,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday movement, which opposes the changes.
The flurry of new measures is in large part a response to court rulings that open the door to more restrictive changes.
Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The decision allowed a number of mostly Southern states to alter their election laws without the prior approval once required from the Justice Department. A few weeks later, free of the mandate and emboldened by a Republican supermajority, North Carolina passed the country’s most sweeping restrictions on voting.
The law did away with same-day voter registration and a popular program to preregister high school students to vote. It cut early voting from 17 to 10 days, mandated a strict photo identification requirement that excluded student and state worker IDs, and ended straight-ticket party voting, all of them measures that are expected to hurt Democrats, analysts said. The Supreme Court decision also cleared the way for Texas to institute its strict photo identification requirements.
In February, the Ohio Legislature moved to reduce early voting by one week, do away with registering and voting on the same day prior to Election Day, and place new restrictions on absentee ballot application mailings. And a little more than a week ago, the Wisconsin Legislature sent a bill to Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, to shorten early voting, including cutting it altogether on weekend days.
In so doing, Republicans in these states shifted their strategy away from concerns over fraud, which have proved largely unfounded, to a new rationale that suggests fairness: uniformity.
Republican lawmakers and election officials argue that to avoid voter confusion and litigation, urban and rural counties should follow the same rules.
In Ohio, the hodgepodge of rules raised concerns in both parties. Some urban counties had large enough budgets to send out absentee ballot applications and some smaller rural ones did not, election board directors said. Early voting hours also varied.
“Every voter should have an equal opportunity to vote under the same set of rules,” said Ohio’s secretary of state, Jon A. Husted, a Republican.
In addition, Governor John Kasich, a Republican, signed a measure that cut “Golden Week,” during which voters could register and vote on the same day, over concerns about potential fraud. He also signed a measure that shifts the responsibility of automatically mailing absentee ballot applications to the secretary of state, instead of counties. The law leaves it up to the Legislature to finance the process, which until now was paid for by counties.
Also in the name of uniformity, the Wisconsin Legislature moved a little more than a week ago to limit early voting, including on weekend days.
On Thursday, Walker vetoed a portion of the bill that limited early voting hours to 45 per week, but he kept in place the weekend ban and a cap at 55 hours. To handle the number of early voters who showed up in 2012, Milwaukee would have 11 seconds to process each ballot under the new law, the city’s Democratic leaders said.
State Senator Dale Schultz was a rare Republican who voted against the bill, saying the party was “fiddling with mechanics rather than ideas.”
“Making it more difficult for people to vote is not a good sign for a party that wants to attract more people,” he said.