For a while there, it appeared that the GOP’s long-running assault on voting rights was finally losing steam. In recent years, federal courts have struck down or significantly weakened several of the country’s worst voting restrictions. At the same time, many states—including red ones—have debated or passed bills to expand access to registration and polling places.
But that was before Donald Trump was elected. As president, Trump has refused to let go of his unhinged claim that “millions” of people voted illegally last November—and has used his unsubstantiated accusation of voter fraud to lay the groundwork at the federal level for a new round of voting restrictions. Republican legislators from New Hampshire to Texas are also moving swiftly to enact a wave of new laws that would make it harder to cast a ballot. Since January, according to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 99 bills to restrict voting rights have been introduced in 31 states.
“It looked like we had turned a corner in terms of slowing down new restrictions on voting,” says Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s voting rights project. “It turns out the pace has accelerated.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved quickly to signal the new administration’s disdain for voting rights. In February, shortly after his confirmation, the Justice Department withdrew its claim that a voter ID law in Texas was intentionally designed to discriminate against black and Hispanic voters. The message to states was clear: Under Trump, they would have free rein to enforce existing restrictions on voting—and to enact new ones.
In May, based on nothing more than the president’s wild claims, the White House announced a presidential commission to investigate voter fraud—and then stacked the panel with some of America’s most notorious opponents of voting rights, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. In his order creating the panel, Trump pointedly directed it to shore up the public’s “confidence” in elections—putting the emphasis on perception rather than reality. “It’s not designed to seek data at all,” Justin Levitt, a constitutional scholar at Loyola Law School and former Justice Department attorney who oversaw voting rights in the Obama administration, wrote online. “The commission’s job is to manufacture security theater—to confront manipulable fears about problems that don’t yet exist.”
But some states aren’t waiting on the commission. They’re rushing to erect real and substantial barriers to voting. Since January, nine states have passed major new voting restrictions that will hit minorities and students hardest. Iowa reduced the early voting period, restricted same-day registration, and ordered would-be voters to show an ID at the polls—moves that will disproportionately disenfranchise Democrats. Ken Rizer, the GOP state representative who led the effort to pass the bill, admitted that it wasn’t crafted to address an actual problem. “It is true that there isn’t widespread voter fraud,” Rizer told The New York Times. “But there is a perception that the system can be cheated. That’s one of the reasons for doing this.”
Georgia and Indiana made it easier to remove voters from the rolls, and Montana passed a bill that, if approved by voters in a referendum next year, will ban civic groups from helping absentee voters cast their ballots. Texas, Arkansas, and North Dakota have also passed new voter ID laws, replacing earlier measures that were blocked by courts.
New Hampshire passed a novel new voting law after a sustained campaign by top Republicans in the state to sow concerns about a supposed epidemic of out-of-state voters casting ballots—even though there is no evidence this happens at any kind of significant rate. Trump also joined in, reportedly telling Republicans in February that he would have won New Hampshire if it weren’t for “thousands” of people who were “brought in on buses” from Massachusetts to vote illegally. The new law requires anyone registering to vote within 30 days of the election, including on Election Day, to provide proof of their address. Those who don’t have proof of residency must get it to their town clerk within ten days of voting or risk a $5,000 fine. The effect will be to chill same-day voter registration—which is especially popular among college students, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
But no state has undermined voting rights more than North Carolina. In April, Republicans responded to the election of a new Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, by reversing the long-standing rule that gives the governor’s party control of state and local election boards. Under the new legislation, control would alternate between the two parties from one year to the next—but the GOP would control the boards in even-numbered years, during major elections. When Cooper vetoed the bill, Republicans used their legislative supermajorities—won via an electoral map that’s been ruled an illegal racial gerrymander—to override him and muscle it into law. For good measure, GOP leaders plan to pass a new voter ID law to replace the one struck down last year when a federal court ruled that it “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Taken together, the new laws represent the greatest threat to voting rights since Republicans seized control of a host of state legislatures in 2010. But two things are different this time around. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated the most important plank of the Voting Rights Act, meaning there are now fewer federal protections in place to help mitigate the damage, especially in the South. In addition, the Justice Department is now in the hands of an administration that has openly sided with those looking to undermine the right to vote.
It’s no surprise that last fall’s election has revived efforts to crack down on voting rights. “The electorate looked a little different in 2016, compared to 2008 and 2012,” says Ho, the ACLU lawyer. “It had fewer African Americans.” By making it more difficult for black voters to go to the polls, he says, Republicans hope to secure their majority into the future. “If you want the electorate in the future to resemble the 2016 electorate, one way to perpetuate that is to restrict access to the ballot box.”