When Republican-led state legislatures and governors passed controversial voting bills throughout 2011 and earlier this year, the provisions at first appeared a major impediment to President Obama winning re-election. Many of the laws were adopted in key states, including Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and liberal groups estimated they could prevent millions across the country from voting and would disproportionately affect blacks, Latinos and the elderly, who are less likely to have some of the forms of identification required by the laws.
But a strong alliance of activist organizations, the Obama administration and progressive media has largely blunted the impact of the laws, which range from requiring photo identification to vote to imposing fines on voter registration groups for turning in forms late. In nearly every battleground state, Democrats have successfully cast the laws as discriminatory and unnecessary and won in court, keeping in place largely the same voting laws that existed when Obama won in 2008.
Pennsylvania is the only close electoral state where a law requiring a photo identification to vote remains in place, and Mitt Romney has largely stopped competing there in the face of Obama’s strong, stable lead. And the Keystone State is now easing its requirements to get a new photo identification in the face of a court challenge.
To be sure, Democrats have not defeated all the voting changes, nearly all of which were backed by Republicans. In Pennsylvania, elderly voters who have voted for years there now have to obtain new forms to cast ballots. Four other states don’t allow anyone without a photo ID to vote, meaning thousands of people could still be disenfranchised if they don’t get an identification before Nov. 6.
A judge this week upheld a Republican-backed provision in Florida that limits early voting to eight days, six fewer than in 2008 and eliminates the Sunday before Election Day, when many black churches organize their congregations to vote after services.
But the Democrats have largely won the legal battle over the last two years, and that’s surprising in part because they started out with a major disadvantage: the U.S. Supreme Court and the American public have supported some of the GOP agenda on voting.
In 2008, the court upheld a photo ID law in Indiana, with then-Justice John Paul Stevens, normally part of the court’s liberal wing, joining five conservatives in support of it over the objection of progressive groups. A Washington Post poll last month found that 74 percent of Americans support a photo identification requirement before one can vote, mirroring other results that have shown even many Democrats and African-Americans back these provisions.