This item by J.P. Green was originally published on July 27, 2011.
Katrina vanden Heuval’s recent WaPo op-ed sketches a disturbing picture of Republican voter suppression in a number of state legislatures, an important story that has been bounced to the back pages of the MSM by the debt ceiling controversy. From her op-ed:
In states across the country, Republican legislatures are pushing through laws that make it more difficult for Americans to vote. The most popular include new laws requiring voters to bring official identification to the polls. Estimates suggest that more than 1 in 10 Americans lack an eligible form of ID, and thus would be turned away at their polling location. Most are minorities and young people, the most loyal constituencies of the Democratic Party.
The i.d. campaigns are based on a particularly flimsy excuse, the myth of “voter fraud” as a significant problem in the U.S. As vanden Heuval explains,
…Voter fraud, in truth, is essentially nonexistent. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice found the incidence of voter fraud at rates such as 0.0003 percent in Missouri and 0.000009 percent in New York. “Voter impersonation is an illusion,” said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center. “It almost never happens, and when it does, it is in numbers far too small to effect the outcome of even a close election.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) disagrees. He argues that voter fraud is a serious problem that requires serious action. But as proof, Kobach cites just “221 incidents of voter fraud” in Kansas since 1997, for an average of just 17 a year. As a Bloomberg editorial points out, “During that same period, Kansans cast more than 10 million votes in 16 statewide elections. Even if the fraud allegation were legitimate . . . the rate of fraud would be miniscule.”
The suppression initiatives appear tweaked to fit demographics of different states. As vanden Heuval notes,
In Ohio, for example, a recently signed law to curb early voting won’t prevent voter impersonation; it will only make it more difficult for citizens to cast their ballot. Or take Florida’s new voter registration law, which is so burdensome that the non-partisan League of Women Voters is pulling out of Florida entirely, convinced that it cannot possibly register voters without facing legal liability. Volunteers would need to have “a secretary on one hand and a lawyer on the other hand as they registered voters,” said Deirdre MacNabb, president of the Florida League of Women Voters…This year Texas passed a voter ID law, but wrote in a provision that explicitly exempts the elderly from complying with the law. The law also considers a concealed handgun license as an acceptable form of ID, but a university ID as insufficient.
At the annual NAACP convention in Los Angeles, President Benjamin Jealous underscored concerns about the deliberate disenfranchisement of people of color leading up to the 2012 elections, reports Alexandra Zavis in the Los Angeles Times:
He cited new laws in 30 states that require voters to present approved photo identification at the polls. “Simply put, people who are too poor to own a car tend not to have a driver’s license,” he said…In Wisconsin alone, he said, half of black adults and half of Latino adults are now ineligible to vote because of this requirement.
Jealous also took issue with laws in Georgia and Arizona that require voters to attach a copy of their driver’s license, birth certificate or passport to their registration forms. And in Florida, he said, the establishment of a five-to-seven-year waiting period before felons can vote would disqualify more than 500,000 voters, including 250,000 blacks.
In addition to the i.d. requirements, shrinking of early voting periods and felon disenfranchisement expansion, the GOP is also suppressing voting power of people of color through redistricting. In North Carolina, for example, the Republicans are twisting the intent of the Voting Rights Act to dilute minority voting, as WRAL’s Laura Leslie explains:
According to Republicans, the VRA and resulting case law require lawmakers to create districts with majority populations of minority voters that can elect the candidate of their choice. They argue the creation of such districts will protect the state from potentially costly civil-rights lawsuits.
But Democrats disagree. They say the VRA does not require lawmakers to create such districts, except in truly exceptional cases. They’re accusing the GOP of using the VRA to justify “packing” minority voters into a handful of districts to reduce their influence elsewhere.
In the Senate, where the Senate and congressional map votes were strictly partisan, Democrats accused Republican mapmakers of drilling down to precinct-level caucus data to separate black voters from white ones…Senator Josh Stein, D-Wake, asked why the GOP Senate map splits 40 voting precincts in Wake County alone. “The only possible explanation is that you want to reach out and grab every black person you can find and put them in Dan Blue’s district. And for what purpose?”
The Republican voter suppression initiatives are not unconnected in purpose or timing, as vanden Heuval points out:
What’s worse is that these aren’t a series of independent actions being coincidentally taken throughout the country. This is very much a coordinated effort. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a corporate-funded organization that works with state legislators to draft model legislation. According to The Nation’s John Nichols, “Enacting burdensome photo ID or proof of citizenship requirements has long been an ALEC priority.” It’s not surprise then, that the Wisconsin state legislator who pushed for one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation is also ALEC’s Wisconsin chair.
Vanden Heuval quotes Alexander Keyssar, a top voting rights scholar and author of “The Right to Vote”:
…”What is so striking about the wave of legislation for ID laws is that we are witnessing for the first time in more than a century, a concerted, multi-state effort to make it more difficult for people to exercise their democratic rights…It is very reminiscent of what occurred in the North between 1875 and 1910 — the era of Jim Crow in the South — when a host of procedural obstacles were put in the way of immigrants trying to vote.”
This is the first part of what will almost certainly be a three-stage voter suppression program. Call it the pre-election suppression campaign, likely to be followed by election-day shenanigans at the polls and then ballot-counting “irregularities” in Florida and Ohio, among other states.
It’s tough to challenge voter suppression campaigns in Republican-controlled state legislatures and state and federal courts. But Democrats should keep demanding that the Justice Department review these laws for compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and have legal teams in place to monitor election-day suppression and ballot counting.