The Nov. 4 midterm elections are the first nationwide ballot since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Shelby County v. Holder, which freed some state legislatures to write voting laws without the supervision of the Justice Department. The ruling revived a debate central to the civil rights era, when Southern states frequently placed blatant obstacles in the way of African-American voters.
And now? Democrats argue that the changes many states have made in recent years amount to a more subtle effort to suppress turnout among minorities and young people. Republicans point out that voting remains easier than almost ever before and say strict voter-ID rules safeguard the integrity of elections.
Both sides may turn out to be right: the new laws could inadvertently boost turnout. North Carolina’s Republican legislature passed the nation’s most sweeping restrictions, prompting a court challenge and talk of a voter backlash. “The mistake the extremists in the state legislature made,” says the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, “is that their actions have energized people.”
Changes at the Ballot Box
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Some 300,000 people don’t have the ID required under state law to vote, advocates warn
A court will soon decide the fate of the Lone Star State’s voter-ID law
A time frame known as “golden week” was cut from the state’s early-voting period
The Tar Heel State’s voting law has tightened the most
The state supreme court heard oral arguments on the merits of the state’s voter-ID law on Oct. 2
EARLY-VOTING AND ABSENTEE RESTRICTIONS
Voters in six states face changes to early and absentee voting this election–including Ohio, where the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to weigh in on reductions to the early-voting schedule. Despite the cuts, voters in Ohio began casting ballots on Oct. 7–a full month before the general election.
Thirty-two states require voters to present some form of identification before casting a ballot, and at least six of the voter-ID laws set to be in place this election can be considered strict photo laws. The U.S. Justice Department sued over one such law in place in Texas, saying it violates the federal Voting Rights Act.
Several states have passed changes to voter-registration drives, but new voter-registration laws in North Carolina and Kansas have been singled out by critics as unduly strict. North Carolina is involved in a battle over a 2013 voting law that among other things ended same-day voter registration during the early-voting period.
FELON VOTING RIGHTS
Some states have moved to restore voting rights to those who have served time, while others have made it more difficult for convicted felons to vote. In Florida and Iowa, felons’ voting rights can be restored after they’ve completed their sentence, parole or probation–but in Florida they must wait an extra five to seven years.
SOURCES: BRENNAN CENTER; FRONTLINE; NCSL
This appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of TIME.