It looked for a moment last year as if the debate over voting rights might be shifting decisively in favor of access to the ballot. President Obama was forthrightly calling out Republican voting restrictions; several courts ruled against voter ID laws; and even Sen. Rand Paul—in comments he soon tried to walk back— rebuked his party on the issue. Meanwhile, the empirical case for voting restrictions to combat fraud appeared weaker than ever.
In truth, there were signs even then that this might be a false dawn. And that’s how it’s turned out. Republicans in Congress last month confirmed that, despite an aggressive campaign by civil rights groups, they have no intention of strengthening the Voting Rights Act, which was badly weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013. Meanwhile, GOP officials in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Ohio aren’t backing off from high-profile court fights in support of their states’ voting restrictions.
In fact, in several states the GOP is looking to play offense on the issue. Emboldened by their party’s gains in last fall’s midterms, they’re pushing ahead with plans to impose new photo ID requirements for voters.
The efforts suggest that at the state level, where the rules are set on who can vote, blocking access to the ballot is as high a GOP priority as ever.
Nevada looks most likely to be next to join the list of voter ID states. In recent years, several efforts to pass voter ID have been blocked by Democrats, but in November, Republicans gained full control of the state legislature for the first time in decades. GOP Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske told msnbc before taking office in November that she expected to see at least one such bill introduced, and one GOP lawmaker has said he’s actively discussing the idea. Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, is a supporter, too. With its large and growing Hispanic population, this swing state could be pivotal in 2016.
New Mexico could follow close on Nevada’s heels. There too, Republicans have long tried to pass voter ID, only to be blocked by Democrats. And there too, the GOP made gains last fall, winning control of the state House of Representatives. Democrats still hold the Senate, but the popularity of Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican and voter ID supporter who was easily re-elected last fall, could be enough to get voter ID over the finish line. Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who made support for voter ID a key plank of her re-election campaign, thinks so. “This is going to be a different year,” she said recently.
In Missouri, ID supporters have a trickier task. Ever since the aftermath of the contested 2000 election, state Republicans have been sounding the alarm over voter fraud and pushing for an ID law. But the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that voter ID is unconstitutional. So Republicans, who last fall expanded their majorities in both houses of the state legislature, have been looking to pass a constitutional amendment to fix that. State Rep. Tony Dugger has introduced legislation that would put such an amendment before voters in 2016. “I am 100% sure that voter impersonation fraud is taking place in the state of Missouri,’’ Dugger said at a committee hearing last week.
Missouri’s northern neighbor, Iowa, figures to be a voter ID battleground, too. “I want to lead that charge and get that job done,” Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate said while campaigning last fall, referring to an ID law. Pate’s predecessor, Matt Schultz, pushed hard in recent years on the issue but was stymied by Senate Democrats. The Senate remains in Democratic hands, but just barely, and that’s emboldening Pate and his allies. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is on board.
But Ohio, still the most pivotal presidential swing state in the country, would represent the biggest victory for ID supporters. Republicans have controlled state government since 2011, but efforts to pass an ID law have fizzled in recent years amid fears of a backlash. But some GOP lawmakers tried to force a vote on an ID measure as recently as November, and they’re getting help from a conservative Christian group that’s mobilizing grassroots supporters. Still, Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who has spearheaded other high-profile voting restrictions, has opposed past voter ID bills, and that could be enough to put the kibosh on the effort.