The GOP's new voting laws: Disenfranchising 5 million Americans?

A liberal think tank warns that a Republican anti-voter-fraud campaign is really a disguised effort to freeze out Democratic voters in 2012

South Carolina residents vote in the 2008 Republican presidential primary: New rules in South Carolina and several other states may prevent millions of Americans from voting in 2012, accordin
(Image credit: Erik S. Lesser/epa/Corbis)

A wave of new Republican-driven election laws will make it harder for millions of eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012, according to a report by New York University Law School's liberal Brennan Center for Justice. The restrictive changes — many in crucial battleground states — are so extensive that they could even tip a tight election, the liberal think tank says. Here, a brief guide to the new laws, and their potential effect:

What do the new laws change?

The most significant restriction requires Americans in several states to present state-issued photo IDs when they vote. The Brennan Center estimates that 3.3 million eligible voters in the affected states — Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin — don't have such IDs now. Other Americans would be affected by laws in Alabama, Texas, and Kansas requiring proof of citizenship when they register to vote, and by new restrictions on same-day voter registration in Florida, Texas, and Maine (which eliminated it entirely). Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia also cut back on early voting, and two states — Florida and Ohio — reversed earlier changes that had made it easier for convicted felons to recover their eligibility to vote.

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Why did Republicans implement these laws?

The GOP made a big push to enact these laws after retaking several statehouses and governors' mansions last November. The Right says the new rules were needed to stamp out voter fraud. "There are enough proven cases in the past, throughout our history and recently, that show that you've got to take basic steps to prevent people from taking advantage of an election if they want to. Particularly close elections," says Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Heritage Foundation, as quoted by The New York Times.

What do Democrats say?

The Left maintains that the election fraud problem essentially doesn't exist, and that the laws, all passed by Republicans, add up to a coordinated effort to suppress the Democratic vote. "The GOP fears losing in a fair fight," says Steve Benen at Washington Monthly, "so the party is trying to rig the game through voter suppression, plain and simple."

How would these laws hurt Democrats?

Overall, the 19 laws and two executive orders in 14 states that the Brennan Center analyzed affect more than 5 million voters. That's "a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections," the Brennan Center notes. The new restrictions could "sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election," the think tank says, because the impact will "fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters" — groups that traditionally favor Democratic candidates. The states that have clamped down — including five of the nation's 12 most contested battleground states — hold 171 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Sources: Brennan Center, Commentary, National Law Journal, NY Times, Politico, Rolling Stone, Wall St. Journal, Wash. Monthly

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