What’s Going On With All These Voter ID Laws?

It's confusing — but also a pretty big deal

Between all the court decisions on voter ID laws and Donald Trump's talk about rigged elections, it's been a busy few weeks in the world of voting. But also majorly confusing. Let's see if we can sum up the basics, shall we?

So what's going on with all these voter ID laws?

The hottest trend in the legal world is acknowledging that voting restrictions are obviously discriminating against minorities and were solving problems that exist only in the imaginations of Republicans. In the past month, measures involving voter IDs; proof-of-citizenship requirements; and changes to early voting, same-day registration, and other electoral rules have been blocked or weakened in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas, Michigan, Kansas, and North Dakota.

Many voter ID laws have been implemented since the Supreme Court hobbled the Voting Rights Act in 2013, but the trend actually started back in 2010, when Republican legislators pushing the measures said they were going to help eradicate the scourge of voter fraud from the land. But, as the federal appeals court looking at North Carolina's voter ID law recently declared, the measures "impose cures for problems that did not exist.” While voter fraud is not a significant problem, the fact that many voters — particularly minorities who don't tend to vote Republican — don't have the means or money to get voter IDs is. North Carolina's law also reduced the number of early voting days and eliminated same-day registration — two voting options mostly used by minorities.

The court's opinion concludes,

The totality of the circumstances — North Carolina's history of voting discrimination; the surge in African American voting; the legislature's knowledge that African Americans voting translated into support for one party; and the swift elimination of the tools African Americans had used to vote and imposition of a new barrier at the first opportunity to do so — cumulatively and unmistakably reveal that the General Assembly used [the 2013 law] to entrench itself. It did so by targeting voters who, based on race, were unlikely to vote for the majority party. Even if done for partisan ends, that constituted racial discrimination.

Courts assessing similar laws in other states used the same language to describe them. A U.S. District Court judge said that in Wisconsin, "The Legislature's immediate goal was to achieve a partisan objective, but the means of achieving that objective was to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee's African-Americans." In North Dakota, a voter-ID law was blocked for discriminating against Native Americans. Back in May, part of another voting law in Ohio was struck down because of discrimination. The decision resuscitated "Golden Week," a period in which voters can register and early vote at the same time — at least for now.

Good thing they're gone. Is there any chance they could come back?

It's complicated. There are several ways these laws could end up back in effect by Election Day, and the politicians who helped usher them into existence would like for that to happen very much. First, they can appeal these decisions and have a higher court give a second opinion. Or they can ask a federal appeals court or the Supreme Court to stay the decisions until an appeal is heard — letting the laws exist until that second opinion comes through. If these cases move quickly, the laws could be back in effect before Election Day, tremendously confusing voters who keep getting mixed signals on the rules.

In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper has refused to defend the state in an appeal — which would go all the way up to the Supreme Court. Cooper potential voter bewilderment as a reason to avoid more changes, but he also happens to be the Democratic candidate for governor this fall and has some obvious opinions about the law. Even if North Carolina tried to take its case to the Supreme Court before November, it's not clear that the justices would want to take it without a complete bench — especially since a tie that just reaffirmed the existing federal appeals court decision would be likely. North Dakota's attorney general told Frontline that it didn't have time to file an appeal before Election Day.

In Texas, a deal is being worked out that would let voters without the right IDs — and there could be more than 600,000 of those voters — cast ballots. Instead, they would have to sign an affidavit and bring a document with their name and address on it, like a utility bill. The court order in Kansas stopping the proof-of-citizenship law only lasts through the state's primary. In September, everyone will figure out whether the rule will be in effect for the general. Lawsuits concerning voter ID laws in Alabama and Virginia are pending, as are suits dealing with proof-of-citizenship laws in Georgia and Alabama.

That sounds confusing. What if voters can't keep up with all the changes?

It is confusing! Many states don't set aside much money to teach voters about changes in election law, which means that voters and election workers could be unsure about where things actually stand in these states come Election Day. To combat that, the same deal that would weaken the voter ID measure in Texas would also set aside $2.5 million for voter outreach. Wisconsin officials assume that people are going to be confused. Voters will need IDs for the August primary but will be able to use an affidavit in the general unless another change happens before then. Early voting will also be available for November unless another change happens before then.

In these states, it sometimes seems like voting is kind of like racing to catch your plane after the terminal changes at the last possible moment.

“I’ve been doing this for 14 years and the only thing constant in these 14 years is, it’s been one change after another,” one county clerk told the Wisconsin State Journal. “I can see that voters don’t know which way to turn. They don’t know what’s currently in effect. It’s very difficult to overcome the misinformation that happens out there.” In North Carolina, where TV ads about voter ID are being canceled, a political science professor told a local news station, "This is the most confusing election year that I can remember, just between the courts getting involved so much, to the nature of the race for president."

The laws that were blocked aren't the only voter ID laws in the whole country, right?

You are correct. There are six other states that have "strict" voter ID requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and 15 states are trying out new restrictions for the first time in 2016. As one academic who's been studying these laws told FiveThirtyEight, these can have a major effect on who ends up voting: “The enactment of strict voter ID laws tends to double or triple the gap in turnout between whites and racial and ethnic minorities." The New York Times also notes that there are plenty of towns and counties that have found ways to curb residents' voting rights without the state's help.

Have any states tried to make voting easier? lately?

Yes! Oregon became the first state in the country to experiment with automatic voter registration this year. More than 200,000 people have been registered since the beginning of the year. Some of Oregon's federal elected officials are trying to spread the wealth by attempting to take a few of the state's innovations national. The Vote by Mail Act and the Automatic Voter Registration Act have both been introduced in Congress this year. Vermont, California, and West Virginia have also passed automatic voter registration laws. Many states — at least 39, both conservative and progressive — have expanded online voter registration so that everyone can finally leave behind illegible paper forms forever. In Georgia, you can even start registering via text message.

Back in April, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an order to give the right to vote back to more than 200,000 ex-felons. In July, however, the Virginia Supreme Court said, nope, you can't do that, so now McAuliffe has promised to sign as many individual orders as he possibly can before November, or until his right hand falls off. The New York Times notes that he would "have to sign roughly 385 orders a day until the end of his term" in 2017 if he wanted to finish them all.

In Maryland, many former felons will get to vote for the first time in November after the state legislature overrode a veto on a bill giving them the right back. The change will affect more than 40,000 residents in the state.

"There's definitely some good news," says Adam Gitlin, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "If anything, there are many more bills being introduced now to enhance voting rights rather than limit access — almost 6 to 1 by our count."

What is Donald Trump talking about with rigged elections?

Sigh. On Monday, Trump told voters at a rally in Ohio, "I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged. I have to be honest." His advisor Roger Stone told Breitbart, “He needs to say for example, today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.'" There are, of course, no other reasons why Donald Trump's poll numbers might go down, definitely not the fact he has done hardly any campaigning and has done nothing but generate negative press since accepting the nomination.

When asked to clarify why exactly he thought the elections would be a sham in an interview with the Washington Post, Trump said, “We may have people vote 10 times. It’s inconceivable that you don’t have to show identification in order to vote or that that the identification doesn’t have to be somewhat foolproof.” That is not true — although Trump isn't the first candidate to make such a claim. As previously mentioned, voter fraud cases are nearly nonexistent. If you try to tally all the instances of voter fraud in a single state over the past few decades, you can usually count them using only your fingers. But since Trump's polling numbers are dismal, he's probably going to keep talking about how he has this feeling that the elections are going to be rigged, and many Americans are primed to believe him. Pew Research Center data shows that fewer and fewer people trust that votes are being tallied accurately; just 31 percent of voters were very confident that ballots were counted correctly across the country in 2012.

While Trump is already trying to find someone else to blame in case he loses, he is also providing plenty of additional commentary to prove that there are many possible ways he could get humiliated that don't involve massive conspiracies, although we do know how much he loves those.