Progressive Lawyers Have Blocked Most Obstacles to Voting Set Up by GOP This Election

Election '16

The Republican Party’s effort to roll back voting rights in the past two years has been a historic assault on American civil rights. But the good news is that voting rights advocates have “blocked or blunted” restrictive laws in more than a dozen states, including presidential battlegrounds, to clear a path for next week’s vote.

“The states that saw restrictive laws blocked or blunted by courts produce half the electoral votes needed to win the presidency,” said a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. “Without the courts, millions of citizens would have found it far harder to vote. This dramatically underscores the importance of the courts in protecting Americans’ fundamental right to vote.”

But it hasn’t just been court victories that have made the close of the 2012 election far more inclusive from a voting rights perspective than it was 20 months ago. Last year, six governors have vetoed harsh voter ID laws and other barriers while Citizen-led efforts restored voting options in Maine and Ohio. State legislators blocked scores of bills in other states. This year, U.S. Department of Justice blocked bad new laws in Texas, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi. And county election officials in key states, such as Florida, have rejected GOP efforts to tilt the scales toward Mitt Romney.

“The dramatic national effort to restrict Americans’ voting rights was met with an equally dramatic pushback by citizens, voting rights groups (including the Brennan Center), courts, the Department of Justice and farsighted public officials,” the report said. “This pushback has been largely successful. As of the date of this report, restrictive voting measures have been blocked or blunted in 14 states.”

The tally of progressive victories is impressive, considering how well coordinated and widespread the challenge. Since January 2011, more than 180 bills restricting voting rights were introduced in 41 states, according to the Brennan Center . The best-known of these imposed stricter voter ID requirements, cut back on early voting and made it harder to organize voter registration drives.

Here’s a summary of what has been reversed or put on hold until after the 2012 vote.

Voter ID

This year, restrictive photo ID requirements were blocked in Pennsylvania (in court), South Carolina (by the DOJ), Texas (DOJ), and in Wisconsin (DOJ). In Mississippi, the DOJ has delayed implementation of that state’s new voter ID law. Last year, governors in five states—Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina—vetoed voter ID laws. In Wisconsin, where people can register and vote on Election Day, regulators recently expanded the forms of ID accepted to register—allowing, for the first time in the country, electronic documents on portable digital devices to be used.

In Virginia, the Republican governor surprised many by this past spring rejecting GOP legislator’s efforts to tighten voter ID requirements, as well as making other changes that will result in more ballots being counted. The Justice Department’s Voting Section did not oppose what eventually was passed into law.

Voter Registration

Punitive measures to curtail voter registration drives were permanently blocked in Florida (in court) and vetoed in Michigan (notably by a Republican governor). A federal court also blocked an Arizona law requiring documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote (instead of signing one’s name under penalty of perjury). In Michigan, a court ordered the GOP Secretary of State to remove a citizenship box from 2012 ballots that she wanted to include so voters would reaffirm their citizenship.

In Maine, citizen action restored the state’s Election Day registration option. Similarly, a citizen effort in Ohio suspended a series of GOP laws to thwart 2012’s voters, which then prompted the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature to repeal the offending package of laws. Montana’s governor also vetoed a law that would have ended Election Day registration.

Early Voting

Cutbacks to early voting—particularly on the last weekend before Election Day—were blocked in Ohio (in court), and were mitigated in Florida (in court) where GOP state officials were pushed to add hours to their weekend voting options.

“These decisions are noteworthy not only for their overall effect on voters but for the sheer consistency of the results,” the Brennan Center said. “As noted, almost every court to have considered a law or policy making it harder to vote blocked or mitigated it. There are exceptions. Most notably, a federal appeals court allowed severe restrictions on voter registration drives in Texas to stand; a state appeals court upheld Tennessee’s voter ID law in October 2012. But voters have won the vast majority of cases, at least for now.”

There still may be some last-minute legal fights or court decisions before Election Day on Tuesday. But compared to how the voting rights landscape looked a year ago, as 2012’s presidential election approaches many barriers to voting have been removed.

“Regardless of the reasons, the results are unmistakable: Voters have largely won the litigation battles of 2012,” the Brennan Center said. “They have successfully fought back new voting restrictions in a variety of other ways as well. The big story of this election cycle, therefore, is not just the massive legislative effort to cut back on voting rights across the country—it is also the massive and surprisingly successful effort by voters to protect their rights. But the job is not yet done.”

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