New regulations add to poll challenges in several states
NEW YORK — Some longtime voters in Texas reported Tuesday that they were refused a ballot because they lacked newly required photo identification. In North Carolina, voters who showed up at a wrong precinct were unable to vote, reflecting a new policy. And in Georgia, hundreds of frustrated people called a hot line to say they were unsure if their voter registrations had been processed, some of the thousands of potential new voters who reportedly faced uncertainty.
In many cases, the accounts reflected concerns raised by civic groups and civil rights leaders that new photo identification requirements in several states and cutbacks in early voting and same-day registration in others would deter significant numbers of people from participating in the elections.
Most of the new policies were adopted by Republican legislatures in the name of electoral integrity, though evidence of voter fraud has been negligible. They are opposed by Democrats who say tighter rules are aimed at discouraging minorities, poor people, and college students, groups that tend to prefer Democrats, from voting.
Many of the changes adopted in recent years “will make it harder for millions of Americans to participate,” said Wendy R. Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
“The problems of disenfranchisement don’t show up in a visible way,” Weiser added. “It’s people who don’t show up or someone’s who’s turned away.”
Because many factors affect voting decisions, and because the turnout in midterm elections is low to start with, scholars will long debate the impact of the tighter voting rules.
Republicans say the charges are overblown.
“We believe these claims are made for partisan purposes to rile up the Democrat Party base,” said Michael B. Thielen, executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association in Washington.
The battles over election rules have partisan roots, said Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California Irvine and the editor of Election Law Blog.
“One lesson learned from Florida in 2000,” he said, referring to the counting fiasco in the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, “is that in close elections, the rules matter a great deal.”
Both parties, Hasen said, assume that restrictions like photo ID requirements and the elimination of same-day registration most often deter less-engaged voters who are more likely to vote Democratic. “So unsurprisingly, Democrat-led legislatures have passed rules making it easier to register and vote, and Republicans have done the opposite,” he said.
There were glitches at a number of polling places around the country that did not appear to be related to partisan agendas. In Florida’s Broward County, technical malfunctions and voter confusion about polling sites led to delays and an emergency request by Charlie Crist, the Democratic candidate for governor, for a 2-hour extension of voting hours. A county judge denied the request.
Countering this year’s trend, the Democratic-controlled government of Illinois loosened the rules, permitting same-day registration, extending early voting times, ending photo ID requirements in early voting, and making it easier for college students to vote. Calling the changes a pilot project, the Legislature adopted them for this election only.
Thielen, leader of the Republican lawyers’ group, called the temporary imposition of the measures outrageous and an effort by Democrats to seek advantage in this year’s races for governor and other offices.
While several of the new laws have been challenged or even ruled unconstitutional by lower courts, the final limits remain to be sorted out by the Supreme Court.