After years of expanding when and how people can vote, state legislatures now under new Republican control are moving to trim early voting days, beef up identification requirements and put new restrictions on how voters are notified about absentee ballots.
Democrats claim their GOP counterparts are using midterm election wins to enforce changes favorable to Republicans ahead of the 2012 presidential election. They criticize such legislation, saying it could lead to longer lines in Democratic-leaning urban areas and discourage people from voting.
Supporters say bolstering ID rules helps prevent fraud. And at a time when counties face tough budgets, they contend local elections officials don’t have the money to keep early voting locations staffed and opened.
The process of changing voting rules may be nonpartisan on the surface but it is seething with politics just below the surface.
“We’ve had nothing short of a rhetorical firefight for years between the folks who are worried about fraud and folks who are worried about disenfranchisement — a firefight which is pretty much neatly broken down between the two major parties,” said Doug Chapin, an election expert at the University of Minnesota.
While states typically adjust voting rules ahead of presidential elections, this year provides an opportunity for new Republican governors and GOP majorities to legislate on election issues.
Put simply, Chapin said: “What’s happening in 2011 is just as much about what happened in 2010.”
New voting rules recently cleared state legislatures in what have traditionally been presidential battlegrounds, creating partisan rancor.
Plans to reduce the number of days to cast an early ballot cleared the Republican-controlled swing states of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. Legislatures in Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia also lopped off advanced-voting time. North Carolina has a pending proposal. And Maine has done away with a policy that allows people to register at the polls on Election Day before casting ballots.
Each party, when in control, seeks to rewrite the rules to its electoral advantage.
Although the reality may not be so cut and dried, both parties believe a looser voting regimen benefits Democrats because it increases opportunities for Hispanic, black, immigrant and poor people — harder to reach for an Election Day turnout — to vote.
Democratic voters held an edge in early voting during the 2010 elections, despite the unfavorable climate for the party nationally and the eventual Republican gains.
Voters in 32 states and the District of Columbia can cast a ballot in person before Election Day without having to give a reason.
Georgia and Ohio had some of the longest early voting time periods. Georgia had 45 days, while Ohio had 35. The new laws bring the two states closer to the typical timeframe, which is about two weeks before the election.
The move to shrink the early voting window in some states comes as others have pushed to require voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
Five states — Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — recently passed strict photo ID laws. At the beginning of the year, just two states — Georgia and Indiana — required that voters must show a photo ID in order to have their vote counted.
Other legislatures are rewriting their state’s election laws in other ways.
Florida rolled back its early voting time to one week from two in an overhaul that also makes it more difficult for groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Boy Scouts of America to conduct voter registration drives.
Ohio’s top elections chief, a Republican, acknowledged that changes to voting rules have invited an overreaction from each party.
“Both sides of the political spectrum have found it advantageous from a fundraising point of view, from a motivating their base point of view, to call into question the confidence in the election system,” Secretary of State Jon Husted said in an interview.
While Ohio’s overhaul bans local boards of elections from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot requests to voters, Husted has agreed to have the state send the requests to voters in all counties in 2012.
Ohio’s law is not yet in effect, and opponents are working to get a proposed repeal question on the fall 2012 ballot. The legislation ignited debate early this summer on the floors of the state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly.