How the War On Voting Will Affect 2012

Yesterday Nate Silver made an admirable effort, based mostly on the academic literature, to estimate how new state voter ID laws might affect the 2012 presidential election. You should read the whole thing, but Nate’s main point is that new photo ID laws are not (pending a late judicial decision involving Wisconsin) going into effect in any “battleground” states other than Pennsylvania, and most people don’t really think that state will be in play unless Romney is winning a pretty decisive national victory.

But before expressing any relief, it’s important to remember that what we are all calling (in a term mostly popularized by Ari Berman in his reporting on the subject in The Rolling Stone and The Nation) “the war on voting” has many, many elements, some of which won’t be apparent until just before or even on and after Election Day. There are ex-felon disenfranchisement initiatives, which have already gone into effect in Florida and Iowa. For one thing, voter ID requirements already in place before the 2008-2012 window that Nate is looking at may have a much greater impact under Republican administration. There are restrictions on various forms of “convenience voting,” such as early voting opportunities. As we get closer to Election Day, we will almost certainly see, in jurisdictions controlled by Republicans, shadowy purges of voting rolls to get rid of people whose addresses have changed, and late and poorly advertised alterations in (or restrictions of) traditional polling places. And on Election Day itself, we always see voter intimidation efforts, and my personal favorite, poorly staffed and incompetent balloting administration producing long lines and discouraged voters, with all this chicanery concentrated on areas likely to produce large Democratic votes (i.e., minority neighborhood and college towns). And then there are the vote-counting irregularities Florida made famous in 2000.

And even where these maneuverings don’t affect the presidential contest, they could well change the outcome of down-ballot contests, and also create precedents affecting future elections. On top of everything else, conservative activists will spend Election Day in some locales trying to generate “voter fraud” and pro-Democratic “voter intimidation” stories that will serve as the justification for future assaults on voting rights.

So some legislative developments and court decisions stopping or mitigating new voter ID restrictions, while important, are only a small part of the picture. The war on voting will be waged incessantly on many fronts.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.