Fourteen states had new voting restrictions in place for the presidential election, ranging from photo identification requirements to limited early voting hours, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Liz Kennedy, director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress, said it’s impossible to determine a direct correlation between these restrictions and low turnout.
“I think a common thread is people in power who do not respect people’s fundamental right to vote and care more about maintaining their hold on the status quo,” she said.
She said the laws affect the turnout of minority voters and demographics that traditionally vote for Democrats. Overall turnout in the 2016 election decreased from 2012, though Hillary Clinton, who currently leads in the popular vote by more than 1.5 million, has more votes than any presidential candidate other than Barack Obama in his races.
Josh Douglas, an associate professor of law at the University of Kentucky, said he thinks the laws are politically motivated.
“I think the story of voter ID and other restrictions is a story of pure politics infecting the election process,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated section five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That section of the Voting Rights Act made any election laws passed by certain state or local governments subject to pre-approval by a federal court or the attorney general to prevent voter suppression.
Less than two months after the decision, the N.C. General Assembly passed House Bill 589, requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls and limiting early voting by one week.
On the same day the bill was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, the N.C. NAACP filed a lawsuit against the governor and said the new legislation would have discriminatory burdens on the state’s African-American population.
In the intervening years the state argued that voter ID laws acted to stop voter fraud. In April 2014, the N.C. State Board of Elections said it found 765 cases where voter names and last four digits of social security numbers matched those of voters in other states, out of a voting pool of over 4.4 million people.
That lawsuit would eventually reach the Fourth District Court of Appeals, which struck down the law in July and said it was passed with discriminatory intent.
Though the law is no longer in effect, Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said following the court’s decision, local county boards of elections limited voting.
“What we saw as we moved through the election cycle is that local election officials were willing to take up the baton of voter suppression and race forward with their own efforts to make voting more difficult,” she said.
In an internal email, Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. GOP, spoke in favor of efforts to limit early voting.
“You should also call your Republican election board members and remind them that as partisan Republican appointees they have (a) duty to consider Republican points of view and that we support them as they ensure our elections are secure,” he said in the email.
Mecklenburg County had 12 fewer polling locations during the first week of early voting, compared to the 2012 election. Guilford County — which has a population of 517,600 — had only one polling site open that first week. Both counties opened more sites in the later weeks.
On Oct. 13, a federal judge denied an emergency motion from a group of voters requesting the N.C. State Board of Elections increase early voting hours in five counties. A report from the N.C. Board of Elections shows total early voting hours increased in the contested counties from the 2012 presidential election.
Unlike North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin both had voter identification laws in effect during the November election, although two federal court cases softened both states’ laws.
In a sample of more than half of all counties in Texas, a report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund found 403 polling locations have closed in counties that were previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That same report showed 27 poll closures across North Carolina.
When the court struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law, McCrory said in a statement that the ruling undermined the integrity of North Carolina elections.
In the still undeclared race for governor, McCrory has filed protests contesting the legitimacy of certain ballots in more than 50 counties. His opponent, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, has declared victory despite the unofficial result.
Kennedy said she’s hopeful solutions to voter suppression are within reach.
She said in Oregon, citizens are automatically registered to vote when they apply for or renew a driver’s license or state identification card. Oregon reported a voter turnout of 78 percent in the 2016 general election, compared to a 62 percent turnout in 2012 — before they implemented the program.
“We are moving towards a world in which all of us are more equal and we should all have an equal say in the future of our country at the ballot box,” Kennedy said.