It’s a good bet that the 2016 presidential race will be close. And if it is, Republicans will likely have a crucial edge, thanks to Tuesday’s results.
A string of GOP victories in races for governor and secretary of state means the party will control the voting process in key presidential battlegrounds from Nevada to Florida. That’ll allow the GOP to impose restrictive rules about casting and counting ballots that could disenfranchise predominantly Democratic voters.
It would be a repeat of what happened in 2000 and 2004, when Republican state officials in Florida and Ohio, respectively, gave George W. Bush a massive boost by doing all they could to make it harder for voters to have their voices heard.
Tuesday also showed that, at least for now, politicians who work to restrict the vote aren’t paying a price at the ballot box.
Democrats acknowledged the threat but vowed to keep fighting restrictions on voting.
"The results are undoubtedly concerning, but we're not backing down," said Michael Czin, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, which ran an extensive voter expansion effort this year. "We're regrouping and will continue to grow our program and outreach efforts with the simple goal of expanding access to the polls in every state."
Chris Christie made clear last week he understood what was at stake. The New Jersey governor and chair of the Republican Governors Association asked a friendly crowd whether they’d rather have Republicans or Democrats “overseeing the voting mechanism” in key states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida.
Christie got what he wanted.
In Ohio, still the state most likely to determine the 2016 winner, Republican Secretary of State John Husted easily saw off a challenge from state Sen. Nina Turner. Though Husted has opposed voter ID requirements, he’s worked almost since taking office to reduce early voting, and he succeeded for this election, thanks in part to the U.S. Supreme Court. Turner made voting rights the focus of her campaign, calling Husted “the national face of voter suppression.” He called his win a “vindication” of his approach.
If Husted runs the voting process to favor the GOP, he’ll likely have help. Republican Gov. John Kasich — himself a potential presidential prospect — likewise cruised to re-election Tuesday. Kasich signed two restrictive Republican voting bills earlier this year.
Meanwhile in Florida Tuesday, Republican Gov. Rick Scott held off a challenge by Democrat Charlie Crist. The governor and Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who Scott appointed to the office, conducted an illegal purge of the voting rolls in 2012. They also pushed through cuts to early voting, which led to voters waiting eight hours or more on Election Day in 2012 — after which the cuts were reversed.
When it comes to Ohio and Florida, recent history adds to the concern for Democrats. In the Buckeye State in 2004, then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell’s restrictive voting policies contributed to lines of ten hours or more at the polls, in predominantly Democratic areas. One study found that the number of people who left in frustration was far more than President George W. Bush’s margin of victory in the state, which determined the election winner. And Bush might never have become president were it not for the help he got in 2000 from Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state. Harris led a purge of the voter rolls shortly before the election that may have disenfranchised thousands of eligible voters.
In three other pivotal presidential states — Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada — Republicans also won the secretary of state post. Those results were a defeat for iVote, a group of Democratic campaign strategists that targeted all three of those races, as well as the Husted-Turner contest in Ohio, in an effort to elect voting rights advocates to secretary of state positions in swing states.
Conservative groups targeted those four races, as well as races in Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan, and New Mexico. Republican candidates won in all four of those states, too. New Mexico's secretary of state, Dianna Duran, was re-elected after an aggressive push to impose voter ID.
Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for iVote, noted that the Democratic candidates in Iowa and Nevada — the only two states where iVote ultimately ran TV ads — outperformed their party's candidates for governor in those two states. He said that suggests that, despite the losses, the strategy of targeting secretary of state races and raising the profile of the office can succeed.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, who went to the mat for his state’s strict voter ID law — blocked by the Supreme Court for this election — was returned to office. (In one small bright spot for Democrats, Doug LaFollette was re-elected as Wisconsin’s secretary of state.) Walker’s re-election means he can keep fighting to put the ID law into effect for 2016 — when, like Kasich, he could be vying for his party’s presidential nomination. It was also a sign that Republicans currently have little reason to face a backlash if they push to suppress the vote, especially since voter ID laws are still quite popular.
A similar sign came in North Carolina, where progressives had been hopeful that anger over a sweeping Republican voting law, among other conservative policies, might generate a wave of minority voters that would carry Sen. Kay Hagan to victory. That didn’t materialize, and Hagan lost to Thom Tillis, who played a key role in advancing the GOP’s agenda as speaker of the state House.
And in Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach won re-election. Kobach became a national poster boy for efforts to make voting harder after he pushed through a law that requires people registering to vote show proof of citizenship. The law was responsible for leaving around 22,000 voter registrations in limbo.
Meanwhile in Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott was elected governor by a wide margin over Wendy Davis. Abbott's office aggressively defended his state's strict voter ID law in court, and he frequently touted his support for the law on the campaign trail.
One high-profile supporter of voting restrictions did suffer defeat Tuesday: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who helped push through a voter ID law later struck down by the courts, was ousted by Democrat Tom Wolf, who will have the power to appoint the secretary of state.
When the voting rights issue was directly on the ballot, it fared better. Montanans decisively rejected a GOP effort to end same-day voter registration. In Missouri, a Republican scheme to create a very limited early voting regime — opposed by voting rights advocates as an effort to hold off more expansive early voting — also went down to defeat. And in Illinois, voters approved a constitutional amendment that will make it harder to enact restrictive voting measures like voter ID. But voters in deep-blue Connecticut rejected an effort to create early voting there.
As for the GOP wins, Sevugan, of iVote, predicted that conservatives like Scott, Abbott, and Walker would overreach in trying to restrict the vote. "Their ideas are so extreme and repressive that there will be a reaction to that," he said.
But whether that reaction will come soon enough to discourage Republicans from restricting the vote in 2016, it's impossible to say.