As Iowa voters headed to their caucus sites Monday, 94-year-old Rosanell Eaton sat in the first row of a federal courtroom in Winston-Salem, N.C., to witness the closing arguments of a trial challenging North Carolina's new voter identification law.
Eaton, who is African American and grew up in the Jim Crow South, had to recite the preamble to the Constitution from memory to register to vote. She had been participating in elections for 70 years when North Carolina passed its strict voter ID law in 2013. Lawyers for the North Carolina NAACP played a videotaped deposition during the trial of Eaton recounting how the names on her driver's license and voter registration card did not match. To get her paperwork in order, Eaton had to make 11 trips to different state agencies in 2015, totaling more than 200 miles and 20 hours.
“I'm disgusted,” Eaton told the Raleigh News & Observer as she left the courtroom.
North Carolina is one of 16 states that have new voting restrictions in place since the last presidential contest, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, accounting for 178 electoral votes, including in crucial swing states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia.
The voting changes include requiring government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot, cutting early voting, eliminating election-day voter registration and demanding proof of citizenship to register. For voters like Eaton, how and if they'll be able to cast a ballot will be as big of a question as who they'll vote for this year.
The nationwide push to make it harder to vote began in earnest after the 2010 election, when Republicans gained control of an unprecedented number of states. Their goal was to make the electorate older, whiter and more conservative compared with the younger and more diverse electorate that turned out in record numbers for Barack Obama in 2008.
Although the connection isn't obvious to everyone, these voting restrictions disproportionately affect the core of Obama's political coalition, including young people (some states exclude student IDs from the list of acceptable documents) and minority voters (who are more likely to vote early and less likely than whites to have state-issued IDs). A new study by political scientists at UC San Diego found that “a strict ID law could be expected to depress Latino turnout by 9.3 points, Black turnout by 8.6 points, and Asian American turnout by 12.5 points.”
Many new voting laws were blocked by the Justice Department and federal courts during the 2012 election; and Republican attempts to restrict the franchise may have led to a backlash among minority voters. In 2012, for the first time in U.S. history, black turnout rates exceeded white turnout rates.
But in 2013, voter suppression efforts got a powerful shot in the arm when the Supreme Court invalidated the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that states with the longest histories of voting discrimination no longer had to approve their election changes with the federal government. As a result of the decision, new restrictions were allowed to take effect in states such as Alabama, North Carolina and Mississippi. The 2016 election will be the first presidential contest in 50 years where voters cannot rely on the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.
Of course it's not just former Confederate states that have moved to gum up the democratic process. New Hampshire, which will hold its primary on Tuesday, has a new voter ID law on the books. Those without the required ID can still cast a regular ballot by signing an affidavit, but they will have to let poll workers take their pictures, which could lead to voter intimidation and longer lines at the polls. Wait times increased by 50% when the voter ID law was partially implemented, without the camera requirement, during the 2012 election.
The latest struggle over voting rights is at root a battle over the country's changing demographics and how much political power minority populations can exercise. The 2016 electorate will be the most diverse in American history, with voters of color making up 31% of eligible voters, up from 29% in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.
Given the Republican Party's reliance on white voters and unpopularity among minority voters, it should come as no surprise that the leading GOP presidential contenders have all supported tough voting restrictions. Ted Cruz was an early proponent of voter ID laws; Marco Rubio defended the cutbacks to early voting in Florida that led to six-hour lines in 2012; Jeb Bush presided over a disastrous voter purge during the 2000 election in Florida that kept thousands from voting; John Kasich signed legislation in Ohio cutting early voting and eliminating same-day voter registration; Chris Christie vetoed legislation that would've added early voting and online registration in New Jersey.
The differences between the parties on voting rights have never been starker. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called for restoring the Voting Rights Act and expanding reforms such as early voting and automatic voter registration. These are positive developments, but it's ultimately bad for democracy when access to the ballot becomes a bitterly partisan issue.