Last week, Texas agreed to substantially soften its new voter ID law ahead of November’s election, allowing voters there to cast ballots this fall even if they do not have one of the required photo IDs.
The Texas agreement was the latest in a string of victories for voting rights groups–but there are still more than a dozen states with new voting restrictions in place since 2012. And what’s more, the high level of legal churn with mere months to go until Election Day creates the possibility for confusion at the polls, including in a handful of key battleground states.
“There is a lot that’s in flux right now,” said Jennifer Clark, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “This is really sort of the high season for litigating these restrictions … if the election were held today, there would be 15 states where voters will find a more difficult time at the polls than the last time they went to vote for president in 2012.”
Among those 15 states cited by the Brennan Center’s research are traditional swing states like New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia–as well as some states that could be on the verge of competitive, like Arizona and Georgia.
New Hampshire and Virginia both have new, stricter voter ID laws in place, for example; Ohio has changed its rules for absentee and provisional ballots.
The battle over voting laws
Proponents of voter ID laws, which have largely been spearheaded by Republican-led legislatures around the country, argue that they’re a necessary safeguard against the threat of voter fraud. Just last week, GOP nominee Donald Trump suggested in an interview that people could vote “like 10 times” in states without strict voter ID laws.
“The voter ID, they’re fighting as hard as you can fight so that they don’t have to show voter ID,” Trump told The Washington Post in an interview last week. “So, what’s the purpose of that? How many times is a person going to vote during the day? … If you don’t have voter ID, you can just keep voting and voting and voting.”
Research has pushed back on the idea that voter fraud is widespread, with one report stating one is more likely to be struck by lightning than found to be impersonating someone else at the polls. And a Washington Post investigation found just 31 credible instances of voter fraud from 2000 to 2014, out of an estimated 1 billion ballots cast in the U.S. during that period.
Voting rights groups argue that new restrictions like voter ID laws disproportionately affect certain segments of the population–many of which are key parts of the Democratic coalition. Young people, minorities and lower-income voters, especially in urban areas, can often lack the time or means necessary to obtain a government-issued photo ID.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has consistently spoken out against what she said is Republican “fear-mongering” about a “phantom epidemic of election fraud.” One of her first major policy prescriptions of the campaign was on voting rights; Clinton called for universal, automatic voter registration at a campaign event in Texas in June 2015.
“Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting,” Clinton said at the time. “What part of democracy are they afraid of? I believe every citizen has the right to vote–and I believe we should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote.”
Recent legal action in key states
Based on the flurry of recent legal activity surrounding these laws, judges are increasingly siding more with Clinton’s view on the issue. In every recent case where a law has been softened or postponed, judges cited the discriminatory effect the laws have on certain voters.
In Texas, for example, the law as it was passed required voters to show one of seven different photo IDs, including a driver’s license and a passport. The lawsuitagainst the new requirements included evidence that up to 600,000 eligible voters didn’t have any of the necessary IDs.
Under Texas’ proposed new version, the forms of acceptable IDs have been expanded to include things like a utility bill, bank statement or any other government document that includes a voter’s name and address.
In North Carolina, a federal appeals court said the state’s 2013 voting law–which introduced new voter ID requirements, eliminated same-day registration and cut down on early voting–targeted minorities “with almost surgical precision.”
“We cannot ignore the record evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history,” the decision read.
And in mid-July, a judge in Wisconsin ruled against parts of the state’s voting laws, denouncing the “preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud.” As a result, the state’s strict voter ID law–as well as restrictions on early voting and several other provisions–are not slated to be in place for November.
“To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease,” U.S. District Court Judge James Peterson wrote in his decision.
What’s being done to educate voters?
While the rulings are good news for voting rights groups, the down-to-the-wire nature of many of these legal battles create challenges for voters looking to show up to the polls in November–and for campaigns hoping to help encourage them to get there. State officials plan to appeal these rulings, though it’s unclear whether any appeals could reinstate new voting restrictions ahead of November.
Virginia’s strict photo ID law, for example, has been the subject of several lawsuits; while it’s currently in place for November, that could still change.
“That’s one of the reasons why this is all happening now in August: so that there’s enough time before November for the rules to get in place and be widely publicized,” Clark said. “This public education idea is huge.”
States typically handle much of the effort to educate voters about the new laws and how they can prepare to comply with them, disseminating information to voters who are registered and providing resources so they can learn more about the process; in hotly contested elections years, campaigns often take similar measures.
The Clinton campaign is working to keep supporters updated about the most recent laws in their respective states: the campaign frequently monitors any changes in voting laws, and both updates its campaign materials and makes sure its organizers know the most recent requirements when they speak to voters.
And back in 2012, the Obama campaign made similar efforts to make sure supporters knew where and how to vote.
The campaign had dozens of staffers in its Chicago headquarters dealing with voting rights protection issues and monitoring the legal developments, and the campaign had a dedicated website providing state-by-state information about up-to-date requirements for voting.