In the 2012 campaign, I spent the home stretch in State College, Pennsylvania, a region notoriously low in turnout due to electoral institutions that systematically depress turnout (e.g., no early voting, excuse required for absentee voting). While the courts had put a stop on the photo ID law, confusion was rampant, with signs throughout the region claiming that voters had to present photo ID (their response to challenges was that they were "preparing voters for the next election") and voters not being clear on the fact that while poll workers were entitled to request photo ID, they were not entitled to require it. Some erroneously walked away from their polling places due to photo ID confusion. Others, seeing long lines due to the absence of early voting and the like, opted out of the extensive wait time. Such conditions should be anomalous, but sadly are not.
Florida 2000 notwithstanding, the chances of one's own vote determining the election outcome is indeed infinitesimal. That said, with many reasonably narrow election outcomes we can see easily how shifts in the laws can powerfully impact the likelihood of one being able to vote (and certainly of being likely to vote), with constraints on voting rights disproportionately hurting the poor and minorities, demographic groups that typically vote Democratic.
A number of tactics -- from felon disenfranchisement to constraining early voting to photo ID laws -- have been employed across the country to supposedly crack down on voter fraud, though in effect disenfranchising voters unlikely to be in the Republican camp. Only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to retain their voting rights while incarcerated, with other states demonstrating a range of constraints. 19 states now require that one present photo ID in order to vote, with an additional 14 states requiring non-photo ID. Obtaining a photo ID is not costless. I, for one, do not have a driver's license. Obtaining my California state ID came with a fee, which if required to vote could constitute a poll tax. This does not even account for the time needed to obtain that ID during business hours, or the forms of other identification needed to obtain a state ID or driver's license (e.g., passport or birth certificate).
North Carolina is the latest controversy with respect to voting rights, with the implementation of a photo ID requirement and 218,000 registered voters, disproportionately African American, lacking the necessary government identification in order to cast their votes. Such an effect is particularly stark when considering an investigation into voter fraud revealing only 31 credible instances out of one billion votes cast, calling into question the validity of the justifications for this legislation.
The Nation detailed this recent struggle of a North Carolina voter: " In September 2012, Douglas’s niece, Clara Quick, took her to the DMV in Laurinburg, North Carolina, to get a state photo ID. Douglas was told she needed a copy of her birth certificate to get an ID. So they traveled across the state line to Dillon, South Carolina, where Douglas was born, to find her birth certificate. But the government office there said she needed a photo ID to get a birth certificate, and Douglas was caught in a seemingly unresolvable catch-22... Her niece called the South Carolina’s Vital Records office, paid $17 for an expedited birth certificate, but still couldn’t get one. Instead, she was told to find her aunt’s marriage certificate, which was in Bennettsville, South Carolina. After getting that, they made a second trip to the North Carolina DMV, but were once again told Douglas couldn’t get a photo ID because she didn’t have a birth certificate. They were so frustrated that they gave up trying for a time. In the fall of 2013, after North Carolina passed the voter ID law, they made a third trip to the DMV. An employee told Quick to get a census report to confirm her aunt’s identify, which she purchased for $69. Quick brought her aunt’s census report, marriage certificate, Social Security card, and utility bill during a fourth trip to the DMV in September 2014 and was finally able to get her the photo ID needed to vote." There is little ambiguity as to the motive, and the effect, of such laws being in place.
The Supreme Court's holding on the Voting Rights Act paved the way toward greater constraints on voting rights in southern states with histories of discriminatory practices. Moreover, the xenophobia by which some of the current primary debates (ahem...Trump) could aptly be characterized only further perpetuates the racial tensions underlying these voting constraints. Indeed, North Carolina's photo ID law (along with cuts to same-day registration and early voting, which can have the effect of producing long Election Day wait times and in turn suppressing turnout) was passed oh-so-subtly a mere month after the Supreme Court's VRA decision. Consider this statistic: in recent elections in North Carolina, African Americans were twice as likely as whites to utilize same-day registration, early voting, and vote out of their precinct.
Rather than simply seeking to outperform their opponents, coalitions have turned increasingly to such suppressive tactics to limit the pool of eligible voters in ways that disadvantage minorities and the poor, thus being both anti-Democratic and undemocratic. In addition to calling attention to the pervasive racism that still remains in much of our nation, it highlights the striking impact of Supreme Court holdings on key civil rights (and other) issues. Clinton has begun to make the Court a central issue in her campaign as she addresses voters about the dangers of the extremism and racism promoted -- or at least motivated -- by Trump. We won't have long to wait to see whether the Senate is responsive to public support hearings for Garland, the prospective replacement for the late Justice Scalia and a game-changer with respect to Supreme Court politics and the preservation of basic voting rights for the American electorate.