How so-called reform laws aim to disenfranchise voters
By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
“The right to vote is precious and almost sacred,” writes Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), who like countless others risked life and limb to expand voting rights to all Americans during the Civil Rights movement (see Congressman John Lewis, “Voting Rights” accessed on July 16, 2012). Congressman John Sensenbrenner (R-WI), stated in 2006 congressional hearings concerned with extension of the Voting Rights Act that the “Voting Rights Act is the crown jewel of the American civil rights laws passed during the 20th century (quoted in Nina Totenberg, “Voting Rights Act Faces New Challenge,” National Public Radio, April 29, 2009, accessed on July 16, 2012).
Congressman Lewis rightly asserts that at this point in U.S. history, after nearly three centuries of struggle to extend voting rights to all Americans, including all racial minorities and women, we should be expanding citizen participation in democracy, not limiting it. Yet that is precisely what Republicans are doing across the nation under the mantra of protecting against “voter fraud.”
A five-year effort by President George W. Bush’s Justice Department found no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to a New York Times report (see Eric Lipton and Ian Urbina, “In 5-Year Effort, Scant Evidence of Voter Fraud,” New York Times April 12, 2007, accessed on July 12, 2012).
Scholars confirm what the Bush Justice Department found—little evidence that voter fraud exists. More than anything else, voter fraud is a myth (see Justin Levitt, “The Truth about Voter Fraud,” Brennan Center for Justice, accessed on July 11, 2012). Lorraine C. Minnite, a public policy professor and a national expert on voter fraud, demonstrates in The Myth of Voter Fraud (Cornell University Press, 2010), that “voter fraud is a politically manufactured myth (p. 6).”
It is difficult to argue that the voter restrictions proposed in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania are anything other than a ploy to suppress voting by people of color and the poor. First, Republicans have sponsored nearly all of the bills passed that would restrict voter registration (see Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden, “Voting Law Changes in 2012,” The Brennan Center for Justice, accessed on July 11, 2012). Second, the restrictions that Republicans have passed, like removing or limiting the number of days for early voting, eliminating Sunday voting, and ending same-day registration, have nothing to do with eliminating fraud and everything to do with disenfranchising those voters who are most likely to vote for President Obama and Democrats: African Americans, Latinos, 18-24 year-old voters, and those who are poor and/or elderly.
In 2008, Obama won 99 percent of African American voters, 86 percent of Latino voters, and 61 percent of all voters under the age of 30 (See “Election Polls—Votes by Groups, 2008 Election,” accessed on July 11, 2012.
The fact that Republicans will not lift a finger to help any of these groups to vote ought to be a warning to every citizen that the “voter fraud” canard is really an attack on the right to vote. “If this were happening in an emerging democracy”, E.J. Dionne suggests, “we’d condemn it as election-rigging (See E.J. Dionne, “How states are rigging the 2012 election,” accessed on July 11, 2012.).”
In the Gulf South region, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama have passed restrictive photo identification requirements. These are among nine states that have passed photo id requirements that will impact over 3.2 million voters (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People provides a helpful “Protect Your Voting Rights” interactive map to learn about state proposed and passed legislation, accessed on July 11, 2012). Louisiana’s photo identification law is less restrictive because it accepts a wide variety of forms, including state driver’s license, state identification, or any “generally acceptable photo identification.” Voter restrictions and identification laws are under review under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in the Gulf States of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas. Both the Brennan Center for Justice and the NAACP provide updates on changes in status of voter id laws in Gulf South states on their respective website referenced in this article.
Among all voters nationally, eleven percent of adults lack valid photo identification. However, if we examine specific groups nationally, 25 percent of African Americans, 20 percent of Asians, 19 percent of Latinos, 18 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds, 18 percent of seniors, and 15 percent of those earning less than $35,000 all lack valid photo identification. By contrast, only 8 percent of all whites lack valid photo identification. John McCain won white votes nationally by 56 to 44 percent in the 2008 election.
Texas and Florida have passed restrictions on voter registration, including Florida’s new restrictions on early voting and on those who have changed address. In 2008, more than 33 percent of voters cast early ballots. Mr. Obama benefited in 2008, not only from votes from racial minorities, but also from the significant increase in African Americans who voted early in Southern states (see the graph, accessed on July 11, 2012. This is significant because, for example, Obama won North Carolina in 2008 by 14,177 votes (accessed on July 11, 2012). Recall that Obama won Florida by less than three percentage points (236,148 votes) in 2008, which may have been due to early voting. Of over 8.2 total votes cast in Florida in 2008, 4,381,693 people submitted early ballots, of whom registered Democrats outnumbered Republican early voters by over 360,000 people, enough to provide Obama’s margin of victory.
Not only have Republicans failed to help traditionally disenfranchised groups, like African Americans and Latinos, they are working to eliminate the most successful means of voter registration—third party groups like the League of Women Voters that have been vital to expanding voter participation in Florida for seventy years. The Florida law imposes fines of $5,000 for voter registration groups that fail to submit forms within 48 hours of obtaining the registrations. Previously, Florida allowed ten days to submit registrations. The new law makes it impossible for groups like the Women’s League of Voters to mail in registrations, as new registrations have to be confirmed by the state within 48 hours. Census Bureau data from 2004 and 2008 show that African American and Latino voters rely more heavily upon third party registration groups than whites do (see Letter “RE: Comment Under Section 5, Submission No. 2011-2187” from the Brennan Center for Justice, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights under Law, Democracia, and the League of Women Voters of Florida to Chris Herren, Chief, Voting Section, U.S. Department of Justice, accessed on July 12, 2012, p12).
Due to these harsh restrictions on third party registration and criminal penalties for failure to meet the new requirements, Florida’s League of Women Voters issued a moratorium on all voter registration on May 26, 2011. Fortunately, the League of Women Voters resumed voter registration in early June after Federal Judge Robert Hinkle decided that “the rule to impose a harsh and impractical 48-hour deadline for an organization to deliver applications to a voter-registration office… impose burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements that serve little if any purpose, thus rendering them unconstitutional (Judge Hinkle’s decision quoted in “Constitutional Law Professor Blog,” accessed on July 16, 2012).
Another sign of rank partisanship is that Texas allows handgun permits for voter identification but does not allow student identification to be used. Nationwide exit polls in the 2008 presidential election found that John McCain carried households in which someone owned a gun by 28 percentage points but lost voters without a gun by 26 points.
E.J. Dionne warns in the Washington Post that “the rank partisianship of these [voter restriction] measures is discouraging the media from reporting plainly from what’s going on” (see “How states are rigging the 2012 election,” accessed on July 11, 2012).
The NAACP’s “This is My Vote” campaign could not be more timely. Every American, regardless of party affliation, ought to advocate not only for the right to vote but access to early voting so that every American voice is counted. Current efforts to suppress the vote, especially those underway in key swing states are reprehensible and contradict our nation’s most cherished democratic values. There may not be a more fundamental constitutional issue at stake in 2012.