A Head Start on Election Protection

There was an all-out assault on the right to vote that began in late 2010, but Open Society Foundations’ grantee partners including Advancement Project, Brennan Center, Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights, and Common Cause, rose to meet these challenges, and tackled potential Election period problems early. 

Since late 2010, partisans have expended substantial energy trying to shrink the electorate and deter voters from the polls. They’ve tried to impose onerous photo voter ID requirements, eliminate or shorten early voting periods, require proof of citizenship to register to vote, and intimidate voters before and on Election Day.

Developing innovative collaborations within—and beyond—the voting rights community, advocates for voting rights persuaded judges to block stringent voter ID laws (by proving the laws could disenfranchise voters), lift registration restrictions and reject limits on early voting. In 2012, litigation focused on early-voting rules and provisional ballots, including in Ohio, began earlier than in previous cycles. Advocates’ work led to the reversal or weakening of restrictive laws in 14 states. They also dealt with last-minute crises, working to ensure that people affected by Hurricane Sandy would be able to vote if they wanted to do so. Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to issue an executive order to allow displaced voters to cast ballots by affidavit at any polling site they can reach; and New Jersey were allowed voters to use provisional ballots at any polling site.

On Election Day itself, our grantee partners protected voters through the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection and education coalition, Election Protection. The coalition set up offices across the country and fielded reports of voting problems received through their hotline and smartphone application. I visited the Election Protection call center in New York, and was inspired to see a surplus of volunteers available to man the phones—volunteers who were willing to devote a significant chunk of their day to helping voters cast a good ballot. The resource itself is quite significant—Election Protection fielded around 180,000 calls and requests. Its website was visited 309,941 times with 649,920 page views. 

But the courtroom wars over the franchise are far from over. While advocates successfully pushed back on many voter identification laws, some of those laws have only been rejected for this election cycle. In Texas, for example, a federal court rejected a voter identification measure in August 2012 on the grounds that the proposal would impose too heavy a burden on minority voters. The state has made plain its displeasure with the decision and has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. There have been legislative battles in Texas over ID every legislative session since 2006 and, if the current decision is upheld, 2013 will be no different. In Ohio, the state legislature repealed a package of voter suppression measures after advocacy groups successfully put a repeal measure on the ballot. State policymakers have vowed to revisit the issue in 2013. In Wisconsin, litigation was successful in getting a preliminary injunction blocking the law for 2012, but the trial will resume in 2013. Given how contentious voting rights have been in Wisconsin, a restrictive voter identification law could be proposed again. 

Perhaps most significantly, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to consider major disputes—from Arizona and Alabama—that strike at the heart of the right to vote. Given all this, while we are proud of our grantee partners’ efforts, we know that work on voter protection by no means ends with Election Day. You could say it has only just begun.

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