Over the past two weeks, courts in five states have ruled against voter ID and proof-of-citizenship laws, citing their discriminatory impact on minorities. Proponents of the laws have argued that they are needed to prevent voter fraud, but research has revealed just 31 credible cases of the illegal practice since 2000. We asked Martha Davis, law professor and human rights expert, to explain how these rulings will impact the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
First and foremost, how might these rulings affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?
Of the five states where restrictive voter laws have been struck down in recent weeks, only two—Wisconsin and North Carolina—are considered to be swing states in the upcoming presidential election. In those states, eliminating unconstitutional voting restrictions might put enough additional votes in play to affect the outcome.
Of course, the numbers involved are not completely clear. For example, the Wisconsin court identified only a few hundred voters who were ultimately disenfranchised after pursuing a variety of methods to obtain the required identification. But it is likely that many more potential voters were simply too discouraged to continue to pursue their voting rights in the face of the bureaucratic roadblocks.
To the extent that there is an impact, it is almost certain to favor the Democrats. The restrictions that were struck down in Wisconsin were enacted under a Republican-controlled legislature and governorship. They included restrictions on in-person absentee voting that the court found were intended to restrict the votes of minority voters. In North Carolina, one in five voters is African American, and the court there concluded that the unconstitutional voting restrictions in that state “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision.” According to the current polls, Hillary Clinton is heavily favored by African American voters.
The other states directly affected by these rulings—Texas, Kansas, and North Dakota—are considered to be solid Republican strongholds in a usual election year. Of course, this year is hardly usual, so if the races are close in those states, the voting rights cases might make a difference there, too.
Fifteen states will still have new voting restrictions in place this year, ranging from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks. What do you think it says about the condition of our country when, in many states, it’s easier to buy a gun than vote?
A recent international study placed the U.S. 31st out of 35 highly developed, democratic nations in terms of voter turnout. As that study pointed out, the U.S. is unusual among these countries in that voter registration is largely up to individuals. Even Donald Trump’s children, Ivanka and Eric, were tripped up by New York’s registration requirements during the primary season. Expanding the voting pool by streamlining registration requirements might have an impact on turnout and perhaps increase the general engagement in important decisions of government.
Still, I think you’re right to suggest that there may be a relationship between voting restrictions and the failure to reasonably restrict gun ownership and use. In one of the most diverse countries in the world, there seems to be tremendous distrust within society. This distrust makes it easier for legislatures to convince the electorate that voter fraud is rampant, although the recent judicial decisions have rejected this claim. And this distrust keeps us in a state of fear that fuels the gun lobby. It sounds corny, but it was no accident that the Democratic National Convention’s theme this year was “love trumps hate.”
In his book Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America, author William H. Frey posits that “the effects of such attempts to suppress voters will pale in comparison to the larger demographic sweep of diversity that will shape the nation’s civic decision-making.” Over the long haul, who do you think will win: the millions of diverse, civically engaged voters, or the lawmakers who have introduced hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote?
In a democracy, we should be rooting for the diverse, civically engaged voters. But unfortunately, the low turnout rate in the U.S. does not bode well for that scenario. An alternative scenario is that the increasingly diverse electorate becomes more and more cynical about government and less and less likely to vote at all, whether or not there are unconstitutional voting restrictions. I think the Trump nomination suggests that is happening already. Many Trump supporters are behind him precisely because the positive role of government has been trivialized. Voting restrictions work to ensure that this cycle continues. If this direction is going to change, I think the change has to come from local organizing. The demographic shifts that Frey cites will and can contribute, but they are not enough.