New Voting Restrictions Could Swing 2014 Election

On Monday, October 27, eight activists with Moral Monday Georgia occupied the office of Georgia GOP Secretary of State Brian Kemp, holding signs that read "Let Us Vote."

There are 800,000 unregistered African-American, Hispanic and Asian eligible voters in Georgia. This year, the New Georgia Project registered 85,000 of them. After the applications were submitted, Kemp subpoenaed the group's records and accused them of voter registration fraud. It turned out that only 25 of the forms were fraudulent and the group was required by law to turn them in regardless.

Despite the scant evidence of voter fraud, 40,000 new voter registration applications have yet to be processed in the state, according to the New Georgia Project. Civil rights groups sued Kemp and voter registration boards in five heavily populated urban counties, but on Wednesday a Fulton County judge dismissed the lawsuit. It was the latest court decision restricting voting rights this election year.

Sixty percent of the voters registered by the New Georgia Project are under 35. "If we don't get them engaged, if we have a chilling effect on their very first time to vote, they may never come back to the polls," Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams, founder of the New Georgia Project, recently told Rachel Maddow.

Those 40,000 missing voters could very well be the difference in a hotly contested Senate race between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn and a close gubernatorial contest between Republican incumbent Nathan Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter.

As Kemp told Georgia Republicans in September, "The Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November."

Georgia is far from the only battleground state where voting rights are under attack this year.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, twenty-one states have put new voting restrictions in place since the 2010 election, fourteen for the first time in 2014.

Last year, North Carolina passed the most sweeping voting restrictions since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Key provisions of that law — cutting early voting by a week, eliminating same-day registration during the early voting period, prohibiting the counting of provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct — are now in effect. The new restrictions could swing the razor-thin Senate race between Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis.

During the last midterm election, 900,000 North Carolinians voted early, including over 200,000 during the now-eliminated first week of early voting, 20,000 used same-day registration and 7,000 cast out-of-precinct ballots. The new restrictions could hamper turnout among African-Americans and younger voters in North Carolina, harming Hagan's campaign. During the May primary, more than 450 voters were disenfranchised by provisions of the new law — a disturbing preview of what's to come.

North Carolina is one of eight states where black voters could decide who controls the Senate, according to a new report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. (The others are Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Michigan.) "Many of these races are challenging for Democrats," notes the report, "and low black turnout will guarantee Democratic losses."

Kansas is another state where new voting restrictions could decide three tight races for Senate, governor and secretary of state. Kansas adopted a strict voter-ID law that caused voter turnout to decrease two to three percent compared to similar states without voter-ID laws in 2012, according the Government Accountability Office. The state has also adopted a controversial proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration — leading to 23,000 voters having their registration status suspended.

"Voters still on the suspense list have until the day before the election to submit documentation of citizenship," says Julie Ebenstein of the ACLU. "Ironically, since Kansas requires photo ID at the polls, someone on the suspense list who filled out and submitted a registration application and thinks they are registered could go to the polls on election day, show their US passport as photo identification, but be prohibited from voting because they did not submit documentation of citizenship the previous day."

The Supreme Court blocked Wisconsin's voter-ID law for 2014 — a rare voting rights victory this year — but Wisconsin Republicans still eliminated early voting on nights and weekends. That could impact the close governor's race between incumbent Scott Walker and Democrat Mary Burke. Over 250,000 Wisconsinites voted early in 2012, one in twelve overall voters. Early voters favored Obama 58 to 41 percent in Wisconsin in 2012, compared to his 51 to 48 percent margin on Election Day.

The most significant election problems will likely occur in Texas, where a voter-ID law struck down twice as discriminatory — most recently as an "unconstitutional poll tax" — is now in effect because the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Six hundred thousand registered voters in Texas don't have a valid voter ID, but the state had issued only 279 new voter IDs of September. If you think voter-ID laws don't disenfranchise people and aren't discriminatory, read this Guardian story on Eric Kennie, one of the 600,000 Texans who won't be able to vote.

These obstacles won't be easily overcome. But hopefully in certain states the new laws will produce a backlash, like in 2012, and the effort to make it harder to vote will make people more determined to vote. That's a risky proposition, especially in a low-turnout midterm election.

Unfortunately, we won't know how many voters were prevented from casting ballots until after the election, when it's too late to rectify the injustice. If the returns are close in states like Georgia, North Carolina and Kansas, prepare for a very long Election Night and a prolonged legal battle in the weeks to follow.

    • Ari Berman
    • Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He has written extensively about American politics, foreign policy, and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in The New York TimesRolling StoneE...

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