President Trump’s false claims about illegal voting, and his announcement of a high-profile voter fraud probe, have been widely seen as an effort to lay the groundwork for a new campaign of voting restrictions on the federal level. But a look at the states, where the bulk of the action on voting was always likely to happen, suggests GOP lawmakers are already getting the message.
2017 is less than ten weeks old, but voter ID bills have been introduced so far in at least 16 states, according to a Brennan Center tally. (And that doesn’t include Michigan, where Republicans tried unsuccessfully to pass an ID measure during the lame duck legislative session following the November election.) In Arkansas, two separate voter ID bills — one of which would put a constitutional amendment requiring voter ID on the 2018 ballot — have already been approved by the House and by a Senate committee. Another hot spot is Iowa, where several ID bills are said to be in the works, and the issue is a top priority for Secretary of State Paul Pate. Other states, including New Hampshire and Georgia, are mulling new restrictions on voter registration.
All this comes after momentum for voter ID and other voting restrictions seemed to slow during the 2015-2016 session, especially after a series of court rulings blocking or modifying some of the most restrictive laws. That led some observers to suggest the tide might be turning.
Different states have different political currents at work, but the renewed eagerness to restrict voting is at least in part a direct result of the message being sent from Washington.
Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Justice Department has signaled that it’ll give states a green light to make voting harder. That was confirmed last week when DoJ abandoned its claim that Texas’s voter ID law intentionally discriminated against blacks and Hispanics, something a federal court had already found. But in reality, as soon as Trump won the November election, it wasn’t hard to guess that the department would move in this direction. Knowing that if they want to restrict voting, the federal government won’t stand in their way — as it did at times under President Obama — appears to have emboldened some states.
Then there’s the Supreme Court. Trump’s election win, giving him the right to fill the court’s vacancy, has boosted the chances that restrictive voting laws will ultimately be upheld — something that looked to be in serious doubt last year. A case involving a challenge to a state voting restriction — maybe Texas’s voter ID law, maybe North Carolina’s multi-pronged voting law, maybe something else — is likely to come before SCOTUS before too long. That’ll likely give the Justices a chance to issue a broad ruling on the constitutionality of such laws. We don’t know much about Judge Neil Gorsuch’s views on the right to vote. But he’s a lot more likely to side with his fellow conservatives to uphold restrictive voting laws than any Hillary Clinton nominee would have been.
Perhaps most important, there’s the impact of Trump’s rhetoric. He’s depicted illegal voting as an epidemic that threatens the integrity of our democracy. He’s said some people vote ten or fifteen times, and claimed that millions of people voted illegally last November. And he’s announced that Vice President Mike Pence will lead a probe into voter fraud. The media’s done a pretty good job of making clear that Trump’s claims are false. But simply by repeatedly raising the salience of the issue since last summer, Trump may have spurred some state legislators to act. Don’t forget: Millions of Trump supporters are convinced he’s right about illegal voting, and are demanding action. For many Republican state lawmakers, those Trump backers are their base. It’s no surprise they’re responding.
Finally, there’s what happened last fall. Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law may have been responsible for Trump’s 27,000 vote win there. Texas’s similar measure likely gave the GOP an extra congressional seat in 2014. In other words, restrictions on voting work to suppress (mostly Democratic) voters — sometimes even after they’ve been modified by the courts. And Republicans just saw that demonstrated on the biggest stage there is.
The point is: This isn’t about laying the groundwork anymore. Trump’s campaign to make voting more difficult is already well underway.