Expert Commentary

United States voting law changes in 2012

2011 article by the NYU Brennan Center for Justice on the potential impacts of voting-law changes on the 2012 election.

The composition of the electorate is a crucial determinant of which candidate will win an election.  Over the last 200 years, the United States has continually expanded the electorate by extending the right to vote to formerly disenfranchised groups such as women and African-Americans. In recent elections, a few states have tightened requirements for voting, with varying effects; but the scale of changes leading up to the 2012 election, many observers contend, constitutes a potentially significant shift in American voting rights.

In a 2011 Brennan Center for Justice report, “Voting Law Changes in 2012,” professors from the NYU School of Law examine the potential impacts of these changes on the upcoming election. (See the Center’s October 2012 update on legal efforts to oppose further voting requirements.) They base their analysis on 19 laws and two executive actions that passed in 14 states in 2011, including regulations requiring photo IDs or proof of citizenship to vote, and laws curtailing access to voter registration, early voting, and absentee voting.

Findings from the article include:

  • New laws passed in 2011 “could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012,” especially youth, minorities, low-income voters, and voters with disabilities or past criminal convictions.
  • Seven states enacted strict voter ID laws, despite the fact that 11% of Americans (and a higher share of minorities and students) do not possess government-issued photo ID.
  • Before this year, only two states had ever sought to require proof of citizenship at the polls, and only one had ever implemented such a provision. In contrast, this year 12 states introduced proof of citizenship legislation, and three of those states passed the requirement.
  • While over the past several decades the norm has been to encourage voter registration to increase the United States’ relatively low voter turnout, this year 13 states introduced and four states passed legislation restricting voter registration efforts, which will primarily impact African American and Latino voters.
  • Strong growth in early voting stalled this year when 11 states introduced and 5 states enacted laws restricting early voting and Sunday voting, a form of voting most important in the African-American community.
  • The states that made changes to voting laws have 171 electoral votes, 63% of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

Obstacles to voting are likely to increase, as at least 42 bills are still pending and some state legislatures are still in session.  The authors note that “although it is too early to quantify how the changes will impact voter turnout, they will be a hindrance to many voters at a time when the United States continues to turn out less than two thirds of its eligible citizens in presidential elections and less than half in midterm elections.”

A related study in the Harvard Law and Policy Review quantifies the effects on turnout of voter ID laws passed prior to elections from 2002 to 2006.

Tags: African-American, Latino, Hispanic, race, discrimination, presidency

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