Voting law changes could affect 5 million voters in 14 states

Restrictions on voting rights adopted in 14 states so far in 2011 “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012,” according to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden, director and deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program, co-authored “Voting Law Changes in 2012.” The full report is here (pdf file). From the executive summary:

State governments across the country enacted an array of new laws [in 2011] making it harder to register or to vote. Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, often of a type that as many as one in ten voters do not have. Other states have cut back on early voting, a hugely popular innovation used by millions of Americans. Two states reversed earlier reforms and once again disenfranchised millions who have past criminal convictions but who are now taxpaying members of the community. Still others made it much more difficult for citizens to register to vote, a prerequisite for voting.

These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election. Based on the Brennan Center’s analysis of the 19 laws and two executive actions that passed in 14 states, it is clear that:

• These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.1

• The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012- 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

• Of the 12 likely battleground states, as assessed by an August Los Angeles Times analysis of Gallup polling, five have already cut back on voting rights (and may pass additional restrictive legislation), and two more are currently considering new restrictions.2

Those 12 “likely battleground states” are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The report covers two voting rights developments in Iowa: Governor Terry Branstad’s executive order of January 14 and a proposed voter ID law.

Governor [Terry] Branstad, almost immediately after taking office, revoked Executive Order 42, a policy signed in 2005 by former Governor Tom Vilsack, which automatically restored voting rights to individuals with criminal convictions once they had completed their sentences.289 Under the new policy, Iowa has become one of just four states that permanently disenfranchise all citizens after a criminal conviction. Prior to Executive Order 42, Iowa disenfranchised adults at a rate twice the national average, and had the nation’s highest rate of African-American disenfranchisement.290

Bleeding Heartland covered Branstad’s executive order here. The order was in my opinion mean-spirited and wrong-headed. The only positive thing I can say is that it was not retroactive; in other words, it did not rescind voting rights granted to roughly 100,000 convicted felons in Iowa from 2005 through 2010.

Newly-elected Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz led the cheering section for Branstad’s executive order, but as Weiser and Norden point out, only three states besides Iowa have such broad restrictions on felon voting rights on the books. I’ve never seen any convincing case for why Iowa should be unusually punitive in this regard.

The longest section in the Brennan Center’s report relates to voter ID proposals, which were introduced in 34 states this year and became law in seven new states. Weiser and Norden discuss Iowa’s House File 95 on page 15. Schultz’s top legislative priority passed the House easily but died in the Iowa Senate State Government Committee. Weiser and Norden highlight the importance of an independent investigation by the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, which “found that the proposed Iowa bill would impose too high a cost and burden on local election jurisdictions to justify its adoption.” Here is more background on county auditors’ bipartisan opposition to voter ID.

Schultz and his Deputy of Elections Mary Mosiman pushed photo ID requirements as a way to combat alleged voter fraud in Iowa. Oddly, though, Schultz is not a fan of the “Precinct Atlas” software pioneered in Cerro Gordo County, which is designed to help precinct workers administer election law properly. Two national organizations as well as the Iowa State Association of Counties have given awards to recognize the value of the Precinct Atlas.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: In case you were wondering, the U.S. Department of Justice can’t do much about the new voter ID laws.

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