The measures, which include shorter voting hours, restrictions on voter registration drives, and tough ID requirements, are seen by Republican-led state legislatures as necessary to counter fraud.
But Democrats say they are aimed at hobbling minority voters like African-Americans and Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic, and are a throwback to the dark days of the pre-civil rights era. President Barack Obama, in a radio address earlier this year, called the restrictions “a disgrace”.
Citing the 1965 Voting Rights Act that protected the voting rights of African Americans and other groups, the president declared: “Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers to vote and too many people trying to erect new ones. We’ve seen laws that roll back early voting, force people to jump through hoops to cast a ballot, or lead to legitimate voters being improperly purged from the rolls. In a democracy like ours, with a history like ours, that’s a disgrace.”
Regardless of the reasons for such laws, their impact on the 2016 race could be significant because in 15 states these restrictions will be in effect for the first time in a presidential election. Some trace the rise of the restrictive voting climate back to the disputed 2000 presidential election and the vote counting fiasco in Florida that saw the US supreme court stepping in to declare George W Bush the winner over Democrat Al Gore.
“The 2000 election in Florida forever changed American politics and kicked off a new wave of Republican-led voter disenfranchisement efforts,” says author Ari Berman in his book Give us the ballot: The modern struggle for voting rights in America. He points out that President Bush’s brother Jeb, now a candidate in this race, was governor of Florida at the time and that it was another Republican candidate, Ted Cruz, who put together George W Bush’s legal team for the court challenges.
Nothing wrong there, of course, except that Berman draws a cause-and-effect parallel between what is happening now and what happened then. “From 2011 to 2015, 468 voting restrictions have been introduced in 49 states. Half the states in the country have passed new laws making it harder to vote. None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the 2000 election in Florida.”
The other side of the argument is that the measures prevent fraud. “There is a voter fraud problem in the US and it undermines voter confidence in election outcomes,” according to Horace Cooper of the National Centre for Public Policy Research, a conservative thinktank. But the Brennan Centre for Justice at the New York University school of law is sceptical about such claims. “It is important to protect the integrity of our elections”, it says, “but we must be careful not to undermine free and fair access to the ballot in the name of preventing voter fraud”. Its report, The truth about voter fraud, found that most allegations of fraud turn out to be baseless.
Democrats are also quick to point out that restrictions mainly impact minorities like newly enfranchised immigrants, and say it is no coincidence that obstacle have been on the rise since Hispanic voters played a key role in Obama’s election in 2008 and 2012.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have made voting rights an issue in their campaigns. “Republicans are systematically trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting,” Clinton wrote in a tweet.
A report by the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies says turnout among black Southerners exceeded that of their white counterparts in four of the 12 presidential elections since 1965 “and nationwide black turnout clearly exceeded white turnout in presidential elections in 2012 and perhaps in 2008”.
A federal court ruled earlier this year that a Texas voter ID law, one of the strictest in the country, had a discriminatory effect against Hispanic and black voters and violated the Voting Rights Act. Oregon and California have passed a law to automatically register eligible citizens in the driver’s licence database, while legislators in 17 states and the District of Columbia introduced similar bills this year. But such changes seem a long way off for American voters.