“Our new voter ID law — which is going to help Mitt Romney win the state of Pennsylvania …”

Speaking to a friendly crowd, Mike Turzai, the Republican speaker of the Pennsylvania assembly, couldn’t have been more explicit. He was caught on video of course — the Right may well have lost these elections because they still use Nokias — but his aside about Pennsylvania’s new voter ID laws were hardly news.

This year, desperate to forestall a second loss, one that would confirm that Barack Obama’s election was no anomaly, but an act of political intent, the Republicans decided to steal it. In a swathe of states, in a process going back some years, GOP administrations — many of them elected in the Tea Party extravaganza of 2010 — started to use the state’s control of voting procedure in an attempt to alter turnout — and more importantly to deter it.

Several weeks ago, the issue was dominating the front pages of American news sites, with the prospect that the numbers involved might be enough to swing the result of the election. With Romney fading in the polls, and the margins widening, that worry has abated somewhat — the Democrats’ strategic position, from 2011 onwards, had been that if they didn’t win by a solid margin, they were done for. But that has more to do with the news cycle than with the importance of the issue. Should the polls come back in, due to Romney having an unlikely triumph in the debates, or through the sheer pounding of sort money, then voter ID, and voter suppression, will be back in  the centre of the debate again.

After all, in 2004, Dubya won the vote by a popular margin of around 3 million ballots. But in systemic terms, he only won by one state — Ohio — and only won that  by 120,000 votes, from 5.5 million cast, and that is easily the number who could be disenfranchised in some of the swing states.

Voter ID laws had started to be proposed by various state governments in the late ’90s — but met with little support until the 2000 election, effectively won on less than 1000 votes (or 5-4, by some lights) made the prospect of a stolen election a real concern. In fact the 2000 election had already been stolen — by an earlier process of voter suppression, throwing people off the electoral rolls. Thus in Florida before the 2000 contest, secretary of state Katherine Harris “purged” the rolls to remove suspected felons — many of whom, thousands in fact, turned out not to be felons at all, and overwhelmingly African-American, surprise, surprise.

When the 2000 election brought such tactics into visibility, the focus turned to the question of voter IDs. To be fair, the question of identifying a voter had been inconsistent and uneven across states — in some, ID had not been required, even when registering to vote. A national 2002 law made that a requirement — and an exhaustive New York Times study has shown that actual voter fraud is virtually non-existent.

But as the constitution bans any form of poll tax or fee for voting, all states have to provide photo ID free of charge to those that don’t otherwise have it. Thus, in efforts to sign up new voters, the process has been all but simultaneous — get people to city hall, get them an ID, sign them up. They never have to use the ID again, and it lapses. For many of those that the Democrats are trying to sign up — segments of the working poor, those on benefits, etc — no other photo ID exists, not even a driver’s licence, and so requiring photo ID at every election becomes an active dissuasion from voting.

“Photo ID or some obscure alternative is required in about half a dozen states, including such fraud hotbeds as Idaho and South Dakota. And non-photo ID is required in about 15 states.”

The process got a boost from a 2005 decision in Indiana, which required photo ID at all ballots, and was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2008, thus opening the floodgates. Soon after, in the 2009 rush of blood to the head that helped create the Tea Party, a group called True The Vote was founded in Harris County, the area centred around Houston. Borne of a Tea Party movement called the King Street Patriots, True the Vote argued that there had been massive misregistration of voters in Harris — a battleground county in a state that may become battleground within two elections.

Research by others didn’t back up their campaign, but the group had organised hundreds of observers for subsequent elections, and had a nationwide push for voter ID on the road. Georgia, Tennessee and Kansas now require full photo ID, though none of them are likely to be line-ball states for the Democrats. Photo ID or some obscure alternative is required in about half a dozen states, including such fraud hotbeds as Idaho and South Dakota. And non-photo ID is required in about 15 states.

However, it’s the progress of such laws in key swing states that have been of concern. In some states in the south, the government can’t change the law willy-nilly — as its voting procedures were brought under the explicit control of the Department of Justice in the civil rights era. Indeed, some counties in Florida (but not the whole state) are subject to this. Elsewhere, they’re doing everything they can to frustrate the process of voting for certain types of people. Some have a capriciousness that is bleakly funny — thus in several states a gun licence will count as ID, but college-issued student ID won’t; in other places, there have been attempts to roll back extended voting periods. Admittedly, they are often too long, stretching the voting period over weeks — but some voting extension is essential in a society where voting is on a work day, and workers have few rights.

As these and other laws were brought in by Republican state legislatures, liberal and left groups rushed to mount court cases against them, on a variety of constitutional grounds, most of them to do with constitutional preambles guaranteeing “free exercise of the right of suffrage”. Lower courts rebuffed them, but last week they had a win — in Pennsylvania, the state the GOP thought could be won by such methods — when the Supreme Court directed the lower courts to reconsider the decision, thus making it likely that the laws won’t be ratified in time for the November 6 election.

In Ohio, a law that would have discarded provisional votes cast in out-of-district polling places (thus allowing people to be misdirected) was thrown out, and in Florida, a bill that made it impossible to hand in batches of voter registrations (from people signed up at rallies, etc) without incurring fines (for the collector) if they were filled in incorrectly, was struck down federally.

Such results are better than the left hoped for earlier in the year, but they leave the process open to the spurious and well-funded voter suppression groups — King Street Patriots, the auspicing group for True The Vote, is funded by Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers group — whose modus operandi is to launch thousands of challenges to voter rolls, much of it based on minor spelling errors in addresses, students not giving their dorm number in their full address, and so on. The aim, for groups such as the “Ohio Voter Integrity Project” is to dissuade people from turning up to vote, and for making the process so tortuously long when it occurs (in a perpetually underfunded voting system) that they walk away without voting. Such legalistic harassment — which rarely yields more than a handful of genuine false registrations, if that — is targeted county-by-county to scoop up Democrat-heavy areas in swing states.

“Will help us to win Pennsylvania …” No, not this time. Pennsylvania is gone, and Romney’s hopes turn on Ohio. There, they will be out in unprecedented force, hoping that a stray 50,000 votes may,  again, turn the tide of American, and world, history.