CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified those responsible for extending the period ex-felons in Florida must wait before regaining voting rights. The waiting period was extended in March by Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet.
Forget Mitt Romney and Herman Cain. In order to win reelection, President Obama has to face down a less tangible Republican threat: state election laws.
In 2008, Obama was elected in part because of his overwhelming success in attracting some of the voters who in the past have been hardest to coax to the polls: minorities and young people. Since his victory, however, new laws have been enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures and Republican governors that potentially will put obstacles in the way of the very demographic groups that the president needs more than ever.
Photo ID requirements, restrictions on early and same-day voting, and restrictions on third-party voter registration may not be a big deal for many voters. But for some, it could be a tipping point that determines whether or not they cast a ballot. When citizens have to decipher additional layers of red tape, “you can bet that a significant number will end up not voting,” said Wendy Weiser, co-author of a Brennan Center for Justice report on the new election laws.
Five of 12 likely battleground states have passed laws that make voting more difficult, the report says, adding that young people, minorities, low-income citizens, and people with disabilities will be most affected. In 2008, those groups overwhelmingly voted for Obama. Nationwide, more than 5 million eligible voters could find it “significantly harder” to vote in 2012, the Brennan Center says, “a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.”
New laws, like documentation requirements and early voting restrictions, will “increase the cost of voting,” said Jan Leighley, professor at American University. Campaigns may have to “hold a lot of hands” to convince new or unreliable voters that voting is worth the effort, Leighley said.
The new restrictions mean more work for Democratic organizers. In some cases, campaign workers may have to do more than just encourage voters to support Obama: They may also have to motivate citizens to file complicated paperwork, track down missing documentation, and go to the polls at an inconvenient time.
The new state laws butt up against a major Obama campaign initiative: ‘Operation Vote,’ an integrated Web, field, and political push to “engage our core demographic groups” and “expand the electorate,” said the national director of Operation Vote, Buffy Wicks. Operation Vote will roll out in all 50 states. “We aren’t going to take any votes for granted,” Wicks said.
Obama for America officials were reluctant to comment on changes to state election rules and how it might affect the campaign's get-out-the-vote efforts. But other Democrats readily acknowledged their concern about the potential impact on the 2012 elections.
New regulations in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio are of special concern, says Matt Canter, communications cirector for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, because they are "states that we have very critical elections in.” They are also key presidential battlegrounds. Unlike the DSCC, with its Election Protection Project, the Obama campaign hasn’t launched a flagship initiative to educate voters and mobilize activists to respond to the new legal landscape.
But that doesn’t mean the president's reelection committee isn’t paying attention. In Ohio, the Obama campaign “was very involved,” according to Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Seth Bringman, in helping left-leading advocacy groups and the Ohio Democratic Party gather enough signatures to put early voting restrictions on the ballot for a referendum. That campaign has effectively put the new restrictions on hold, meaning they will not be in force during the 2012 elections.
Ohio’s election law “dramatically” reduced early and mail-in voting, Bringman said. He argued that the Republicans in the Legislature enacted the rules "simply to make it harder for Democrats to vote.” In 2008, Bringman said, Obama successfully used Ohio’s lengthy early-voting window to win the state.
Florida’s legislation, currently under review in federal court, has made voter registration by outside groups all but impossible and eliminated the last Sunday of voting before Election Day. And in March, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet issued new clemency rules extending the amount of time ex-felons must wait before their voting rights are restored. All three changes could have a big impact on minority communities.
Republican-passed election law restrictions make up a complicated patchwork, and their impact on the presidential race is hard to predict. Mitigating the potential impact: Most of the new laws have been enacted in Republican-leaning states where Obama is unlikely to be competing for Electoral College votes.
Meanwhile, the president's reelection team has a head start. At this point in the 2008 cycle, Obama was still duking it out with Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, campaign officials emphasized. This year, the campaign has already started bankrolling its nationwide grassroots campaign structure.
“We’re proud to have operations up in all 50 states,” Obama campaign director Jim Messina told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday.
The Obama campaign plans to build on the tactical lessons of 2008. But this time around, the president can't count on the euphoric enthusiasm that buoyed his 2008 campaign. With the president’s approval-rating low and the recession pummeling his most dedicated supporters, the last thing his campaign needs are procedural hurdles at the state level that could depress turnout.
The new Republican-driven election restrictions will likely have the largest impact on new or unreliable voters who don’t normally show up at the polls—the so-called marginal voters. But many elections are won or lost on the margins. And 2012 could be one of them.
(CORRECTION AND CLARIFICATION: The original version of this story gave the wrong year that Obama used early voting. It was 2008. And it misstated the effect of one of Florida's election law changes. The new law would eliminate the last Sunday of early voting.)