clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

7 specific ways states made it harder for Americans to vote in 2016

Those long early voting lines aren’t a total accident.

Early voting in Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s too hard to vote in America.

That’s the takeaway from what we’ve seen over the past few days of early voting, when multiple states, including swing states like Ohio and North Carolina, have reported long — sometimes hours-long! — lines at the polls. These lines were so bad that a few people — strained for time by work, family, and other obligations — had to give up on voting early. Some of them told the Washington Post that they will go back on Election Day. But how can anyone be sure that will be the case?

To some degree, all of this was intentional. States, particularly those controlled by Republicans, have made several moves over the past few years to make it harder to vote — typically in a way that targets minority voters who tend to go Democrat.

Here is a detailed list of the restrictions, based on the Brennan Center for Justice’s tracker, the Leadership Conference Education Fund’s recent report on poll closures, and Project Vote’s voter purge database:

  1. Voter ID requirements: Alabama, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin passed new laws that require voters prove their identity with a voter ID. Indiana also passed a law letting party-nominated election officers demand voter IDs at the polls. The laws can severely limit which IDs are valid — Texas, for example, allows a gun permit and other government-issued IDs but not a student ID. Some states allow exceptions to their laws, but the process of obtaining an exception can be arduous, especially for poor, time-constrained voters.
  2. Early voting cuts: Ohio cut a whole week from early voting, eliminating the “golden week” in which voters could register and vote on the same day. And Nebraska cut its early voting period from 35 days to no more than 30 days.
  3. New requirements to register to vote: Kansas passed a law that requires new voters to show proof of citizenship to register to vote. Virginia also required groups submitting 25 or more voter registration forms to register with the state, and reduced the amount of time to deliver the forms from 15 days to 10 days.
  4. Limits on mail-in ballots: Arizona made it a felony to collect and turn in someone else’s mail-in ballot, even with that voter’s permission. The US Supreme Court recently let the law stand for 2016.
  5. Provisional and absentee voting changes: Ohio passed strict rules that can invalidate absentee and provisional ballots if forms accompanying those ballots aren’t filled out in a very specific way.
  6. Polling place closures: Southern states, from Arizona to North Carolina, have closed down at least 868 polling places since the US Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. (The Voting Rights Act could have allowed the Department of Justice to stop these closures before, but not anymore.) These are only the closures tracked in about half the counties that were once covered by the Voting Rights Act due to their long histories of racial discrimination, so there have likely been hundreds or even thousands more closures nationwide.
  7. Voter roll purges: Several states have attempted to conduct sweeping purges of voter rolls, potentially undoing voters’ registration without their knowledge. Some of these purges — such as North Carolina’s and Florida’s — have been overturned by courts, but not all are even known to the public until it’s too late.

Here is how some of those restrictions, including voter ID and early voting cuts, look in map form:

All of this falls on top of the wave of restrictions that states passed in time for the 2012 election. Georgia cut its early voting period by more than half for 2012. Iowa and South Dakota made it harder for people with past criminal convictions to regain their voting rights. Many states already had voter ID laws in place before 2016. And of course, 13 states still don’t let people vote early unless they have an excuse — like a work-related conflict — or at all.

And these restrictions are in addition to more traditional hurdles to getting to vote, such as work or family obligations and not having the transportation to get to the ballot.

Due to socioeconomic disparities, these types of restrictions disproportionately impact minority voters. For example, since minority Americans are less likely to have flexible work hours or own cars, they might have a harder time affording a voter ID or getting to the right place (typically a DMV or BMV office) to obtain a voter ID, rely more on early voting opportunities to cast a ballot, or require a nearby voting place instead of one that’s a drive, instead of a walk, away from home or work.

Now, the impact of these voting restrictions isn’t normally enough to swing a national election. Studies show that restrictions like voter ID and early voting cuts tend to have little to no effect on voter turnout. But when an election is very close — as is the case in North Carolina, which reduced the number of polling places this year — even a small impact could make a significant difference.

That’s especially the case if the restrictions target minority Americans — since they tend to vote Democrat, keeping them from the ballot box could give Republicans an advantage. Studies, court findings, and Republicans’ own admissions suggest that the new voting restrictions disproportionately impact, often purposely so, minority voters.

As a result, potentially millions of Americans will likely have a harder time voting on Election Day, if they didn’t already have a hard time when attempting to vote early.


Watch: Americans with disabilities often struggle to vote

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.