Barack Obama's winning coalition in Iowa drew on new voters, students, minorities and poor people, according to polls and other snapshots of Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses.
The new voters, particularly college students, defied former President Bill Clinton, his candidate wife Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen, all who decried their efforts to vote because, while legal, they apparently were not Iowan enough. Needless to say, these Obama supporters did not take heed.
But if Obama -- or any Democrat -- is going to repeat his higher-than-expected turnout in other states, their supporters may have to surmount significant new voting rights barriers as the campaign moves through the primaries and into the fall election.
That is because the new voters, young people, minorities and the poor who turned out for Obama in Iowa are the very voters targeted by numerous Republican-led "ballot security" laws that have been adopted across the country since 2004. While some of these laws have been overturned, they include tough new voter ID requirements, restrictions on registering voters and even penalties for helping people with absentee ballots.
"Any mobile population are the ones that are most affected by election laws," said David Rosenfeld, national program director for Student Public Interest Research Groups, which tracks student voting. "The most mobile populations are young people and poor people."
Student voting is a good example. The real barrier to student voting in 2008 is not admonitions from the Clintons. It is a patchwork of state laws, according to Rosenfeld, that discourage student voting. Arizona, for instance, rejects out-of-state driver's licenses as an acceptable voter ID. The same is true in Indiana. New Hampshire requires students to register at local government offices. Virginia allows local election officials to decide if a dormitory qualifies as a "domicile." Some do, Rosenfeld said, and some do not. New Mexico restricts the number of voter registration forms one person may carry at a time. And Texas has new penalties for "improperly" helping people with absentee ballots.
Many of these laws -- particularly the voter ID laws and restrictions on registration drives -- have come into effect since the last presidential election. State legislatures, usually with Republican majorities, adopted the measures to combat "voter fraud," or what the GOP has said is people impersonating other voters for partisan benefit. What's notable about these laws is they affect an entire state electorate, while the problems provoking their adoption almost always concern a handful of individuals. That disparity has led many voting rights advocates to say these laws are meant to discourage Democratic voters.
Next week, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to one of the most strident of these laws, Indiana's photo ID requirement for voters. The case is seen as being the most important election law case since the court's decision awarding the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000, because it either will codify a new generation of restrictive election laws or open up the voting process.
The stakes in the Indiana case are enormous for 2008. Voter registration groups like Project Vote, which seeks to register low-income people and will be working in 20 states this year, cite academic studies finding that if minorities voted as frequently as whites, 7.5 million more people would be voting for president next November.
Whether it is harder or easier for those people to vote, just as whether or not there is a candidate who motivates them, will be a major factor in selecting the next president. Indeed, as Obama's Iowa caucuses victory showed, a relatively open process and an inspirational candidate defied expectations with both turnout and the makeup of the electorate.