by David Weisbrot
DESPITE the energy of Barack Obama's candidacy in 2008, and the big effort put into registering first-time voters and minorities, 90 million adult US citizens - some 43 per cent - failed to vote.
Nevertheless, the higher than usual turnout of black, Latino and young voters was seen to be crucial to Obama's historic election victory.
There is no greater evidence of this view than the fact that, over the past year, Republican-held legislatures in 34 states have proposed measures aimed at tightening registration and voting laws.
These laws contain a number of common features, especially the requirement that voters present certain specified photo-ID documents. The nature of the required proof of identity is often telling - in Texas, for example, a concealed handgun licence satisfies the requirements, while a university student ID does not.
This is portrayed as a measure aimed at reducing voter fraud, but there is little evidence of an actual problem. A study contradicted the common view that most Americans have a driver's licence or other form of photo-ID, finding that "as many as 11 per cent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo ID. That percentage is even higher for seniors, people of colour, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students".
Florida, Texas, South Carolina and other states have also moved to impose substantial fines and even criminal penalties on those who seek to enrol new voters but fail to comply with a raft of highly technical requirements.
No evidence of fraud or bad intention is required to sustain a conviction. In March, a Florida high school teacher was fined $US1000 ($1011) for lodging voter registration forms on behalf of her students just slightly after the newly mandated 48-hour deadline. The students had completed the forms during a civics class exercise on participatory democracy.
Sufficiently frightened, mainstream groups like the Boy Scouts and the League of Women Voters might have to suspend their traditional voter registration drives until the law has been successfully challenged in the courts. The normally circumspect League described the new laws as a "war on voters".
The new laws also contain provisions eliminating or severely reducing what had become increasingly popular early voting arrangements.
Given that US elections are held on Tuesdays, and are not designated public holidays, many working-class Americans find it hard to squeeze in a trip to the polls before or after work, or to assist elderly or disabled family members or neighbours to do so.
The tough new laws also disenfranchise former felons, no matter how long ago the offence or the fact that the person has served time and re-entered civil society.
Given the relatively higher rates of offending by young black and Latino men, these restrictions disproportionately affect those groups, with about 13 per cent of African-American men losing the right to vote.
The Democratic Party has already commenced federal legal proceedings against Florida and Wisconsin, alleging that their changes are partisan and discriminatory.
The Department of Justice has also taken action against South Carolina and Texas in recent months, alleging their new laws disproportionately prejudice black and Hispanic voters.
Ultimately, leaving these matters to the predominantly conservative judges on the US Supreme Court may offer little comfort to the Obama administration or to the country's civil liberties groups.
In 2008, the US Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Indiana's strict voter-ID law on the basis that insufficient evidence was presented that the law was actually preventing otherwise eligible citizens from exercising their voting rights. One week later, a group of elderly retired nuns was barred from voting in Indiana because none possessed a valid driver's licence.
Among the dozen battleground states that will determine the outcome of the next presidential election later this year, five have already legislated to restrict voting rights and two are considering similar measures.
Leading African-American civil rights campaigner Benjamin Jealous has scathingly described these new laws as "the greatest co-ordinated legislative attack on voting rights" since the days of racial segregation.
In the prime battleground of Florida, with its large electoral college vote and almost evenly split voter base - as evidenced by the handful of contested votes that determined the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore - the League of Women Voters has pointed out that the new restrictive laws have achieved their intended effect, with voter registration numbers down by more than 80,000 compared with the similar period in 2008.
So in what is expected to be another close contest, Obama's re-election bid may well turn as much on whether his supporters are allowed to vote as on the perceived success of his policies and performance. Expect the courts to be very busy before and after the election.