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Prepare for voter whiplash

Decisions on voting rights cases have been literally all over the map.Shutterstock/boston globe photo illustration

Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have both complained that voting and delegate selection rules in the various primary states are “rigged” or “corrupt” because they favor establishment candidates who know how to play by the complex rules. The two men are right in one regard: America operates under a crazy quilt of voting requirements, with each state making its own laws for different populations and with challenges to those laws whipping back and forth through the courts. But if the primaries have frustrated the candidates, try being a voter in November.

In 17 states, voters will face restrictive new requirements for the first time on Election Day. Several states will now require various forms of identification. Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, and Kansas will even require proof of citizenship. Different forms of ID will be required in different states: Some will accept a bank statement or utility bill, others want to see a passport or birth certificate. Texas, notoriously, will accept a gun license but not a college ID card.

If you don’t have the proper ID, different procedures apply. Some states require prospective voters to sign an affidavit attesting to their eligibility; others hold the ballot as provisional and only count it if the voter returns to the local election office with proof of eligibility.


Then there are new rules for early voting, same-day registration, and mail-in ballots. Confused yet?

The country’s voter access laws may be a patchwork, but they aren’t random: Nine of the 12 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations have passed new restrictions since 2010. Seven of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008 have new voting restrictions in place this year. Young voters are also facing new hurdles. In Kansas, thousands of newly registered voters are in limbo because of changing registration requirements, and 58 percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 29, according to court documents.

Fifteen of the 17 new restrictions were passed by state legislatures with Republican majorities. Most of the affected groups — minorities, first-time voters, the young, the poor — tend to vote Democratic. As Maxwell Smart used to say: Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Maybe the courts can sort it all out, but be careful what you wish for. Decisions on voting rights cases have been literally all over the map. In North Carolina last month, a federal trial court upheld laws that establish strict voter ID requirements and eliminate early voting. But in Ohio, a federal judge reinstated an early-voting system whereby citizens could cast ballots starting the Sunday before election day. Before the 2014 mid-term elections, a nervous US Supreme Court issued several temporary stays because implementing the new requirements would have been disruptive so close to the election. Now the lack of a ninth juror on the court is a recipe for more gridlock.


It’s no accident that a flood of new voter restrictions has been loosed in the land. This is the first presidential election in half a century without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court largely struck down in 2013. States such as Texas can now implement laws that had been disallowed as discriminatory under the act. Just last month the Supreme Court refused to block the Texas law from taking effect before the November elections, though it did prod the state to resolve clashing lower-court decisions on whether the new rules intentionally discriminate. Unsurprisingly, 15 states — all Republican — intervened to back Texas in amicus briefs.

Americans are told from childhood that the vote is democracy’s most precious gift. It shouldn’t depend on an accident of geography whether you’re allowed to open it.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.