Photo by Lars Plougmann
With the primary season over, and Clinton and Trump having almost certainly secured their respective party’s nominations, attention is turning to the election in November.
Though Trump managed to cruise through the primaries, his campaign now faces a much rockier road. Demographic changes and geographic challenges pose serious barriers to any Republican presidential candidate in 2016, especially one as staggeringly unpopular as the party’s presumptive nominee.
Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, Republicans have unleashed an arsenal of undemocratic tricks to help win elections. In state after state, they’ve tapped into a long, brutal history of trying to suppress the votes of black and poor Americans, who tend to lean Democratic.
Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses worked together with lynch mobs and ballot stuffing to deny certain groups of Americans their constitutional rights. These efforts began in earnest during Reconstruction but persisted in one guise or another well into the 20th century. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, sought to remedy these and other ills affecting elections.
Two key parts of the act, sections 4 and 5, stipulated that states and municipalities with a history of intentionally discriminatory election practices must seek “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before altering their election laws. This requirement covered nine states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. It also named a host of individual counties and cities with problematic pasts.
Preclearance allowed the federal government to serve as a bulwark against discriminatory voting laws. Before the Voting Rights Act, the DOJ had to fight each law in court—a lengthy, expensive, and inefficient process. Worse, as soon as one law was struck down, a nearly identical one would pop up in its place. Remarking on the extraordinary “variety and persistence” of these laws, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote:
“Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra.”
Unfortunately, the Hydra has reared her ugly heads again. In 2013, a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parts of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional in treating various states differently, and opined that such laws are no longer needed today. It struck down the language that determines which states are covered by preclearance.
Within hours of the decision, Texas implemented one of the nation’s most restrictive voter ID laws, requiring documents that an estimated 600,000 Texans lack. Two federal judges have already found the law—which lets Texans vote with a handgun permit but not a student ID—to be discriminatory, but it will most likely stand during the November election.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 25 percent of African American eligible voters lack a current government-issued ID, compared to only 8 percent of white Americans. Potential voters earning less than $35,000 a year are more than twice as likely as others to lack the required documents. Voters under twenty-five are far more likely than older voters to lack an ID with an up-to-date address. Another disenfranchised group is women who marry and lack IDs with their changed names.
In all, seventeen states will have new voting restrictions in place for the 2016 presidential election, the first in half a century without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. Most have passed voter ID, but other schemes are also in play. Some states have cut early voting, placed restrictions on mail-in ballots, and made it harder to register to vote. Kansas, Georgia, and Alabama are now demanding passports or birth certificates to prove citizenship.
Some municipalities have also adopted restrictions. Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Arizona, reduced the number of polling locations for a contested primary from 200 to sixty—that is, one for every 21,000 voters.
Republicans continue to peddle the fantasy that voter ID laws are needed to prevent fraud, although multiple studies have proven fraudulent ballots to be exceedingly rare. In fact, voter ID laws are pretty much useless against the most common (but still rare) types of illegal voting, like voting more than once. The Texas state attorney general, after reviewing twelve years of voting records, prosecuted eighty-five cases of alleged fraud, securing sixty convictions. Of these cases, only three or four could have been potentially prevented by Texas’s voter ID law.
If voter ID laws do little to deter illegal voters but instead push away thousands of legitimate voters, then perhaps these laws are themselves the most effective form of electoral fraud in the country.
To learn which new voting laws will be in place for the 2016 general election, click on the seventeen states in the map below. The map also shows whether the state was previously covered by the preclearance requirement in the Voting Rights Act.
Tanner Jean-Louis is an editorial assistant at The Progressive. He grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Arizona. He will be studying law at Georgetown University in the Fall.