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Rolling Stone reporter Ari Berman writes that Republican lawmakers across the nation have launched “an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots.” The initiative is ostensibly to counter the “epidemic” of “voter fraud” that Republicans insist is not only plaguing the nation, but affecting the outcome of elections. (In 2007, the Brennan Center released a report that found the instance of voter fraud vanishingly small, and concluded that more people die by lightning strikes than commit voter fraud—see 2007). Judith Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project tells Berman, “What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century.” As far back as 1980, powerful Republican operative Paul Weyrich told evangelical leaders: “I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” In 2010, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group founded by Weyrich and funded in part by the billionaire Koch brothers (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, Late 2004, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, December 6, 2009, November 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, September 24, 2010, January 5, 2011, October 4, 2011, and February 14, 2011), began working to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of legitimate voters, almost of all identified as being part of ethnic or gender groups that are more likely to vote Democratic. Thirty-eight states have submitted legislation designed to impede voting “at almost every step of the electoral process.”
Requiring Proof of Citizenship - Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to show proof of US citizenship before being allowed to vote.
Impeding Voter Registration - Florida and Texas have passed legislation making it more difficult for groups like the League of Women Voters, an organization widely considered to lean Democratic, to register new voters. Maine repealed same-day registration, which had been in effect since 1973 and had worked to significantly increase voter participation. The Florida legislature passed a law requiring groups to hand in voter registration forms within 48 hours of collection, and imposed what Berman calls “a barrage of onerous, bureaucratic requirements” and serious criminal penalties for those who fail to comply. As a result, many people who once volunteered to help register voters are afraid to do so again. The League of Women Voters says it will no longer operate in Florida, and called Florida’s efforts “good old-fashioned voter suppression.” The Florida statute took effect one day after its passage, under an emergency statute designed for “an immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare.” Since 2009, Florida has arrested a total of three people for suspected voter fraud. Republican state senator Mike Fasano, one of the few in his party to oppose the restrictions on registrations, says, “No one could give me an example of all this fraud they speak about.”
Curbing Early Voting - Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have cut short early-voting periods. Six states have moved to impose new restrictions on voter registration drives. In 2004, then-Florida governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) said he thought early voting was “great.… It’s another reform we added that has helped provide access to the polls and provide a convenience. And we’re going to have a high voter turnout here, and I think that’s wonderful.” However, his successor Rick Scott (R-FL) does not agree, and neither do most Republicans. After analysis showed what a benefit early voting was for Obama’s numbers, early voting became a key target. Florida has cut early voting days from 14 to 8 days. Ohio, where early voting numbers gave Obama a narrow victory in 2008, has cut its early voting days from 35 to 11, with only limited hours on weekends. Both states have banned voting on the Sunday before elections, when many black churches historically mobilize their constituents. The Early Voting Information Center at Reed College states, “There is no evidence that any form of convenience voting has led to higher levels of fraud.”
Denying Convicted Felons the Right to Vote - Florida and Iowa have passed laws denying convicted felons the right to vote, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters even if they have already served their sentences and have returned to society. Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R-FL) restored the voting rights of 154,000 felons convicted of non-violent crimes. In March 2011, after 30 minutes of public debate, Governor Scott overturned that decision, instantly disenfranchising almost 98,000 citizens and prohibiting another 1.1 million convicts from being allowed to vote after they are released from prison. Former President Bill Clinton asked in July: “Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they’ve paid their price? Because most of them in Florida were African-Americans and Hispanics and would tend to vote for Democrats—that’s why.” Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) recently took a similar action, overturning his predecessor’s decision to restore voting rights to some 100,000 ex-felons. Until recent years, Iowa saw up to five percent of its residents ineligible to vote, including 33 percent of its African-American residents. Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia require former felons to apply for the right to vote to be restored.
Voter Identification - Six states—Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin, all controlled by Republican governors and legislatures—have passed laws requiring an official government ID to cast a ballot. Berman notes that some 10 percent of US citizens lack such identification, and the number of young and black voters, groups that traditionally lean Democratic, are much higher. The turn towards voter ID requirements began in 2008, when the US Supreme Court upheld an Indiana photo-ID requirement even though state lawyers could not produce a single instance of the kind of voter fraud that photo ID laws are designed to prevent. After the ruling, ALEC orchestrated a nationwide move towards photo ID requirements. ALEC wrote draft legislation for Republican legislators based on Indiana’s ID requirement. Five of the states that passed those laws had their legislation submitted by legislators who belong to ALEC. Heather Smith, president of the voter-registration group Rock the Vote, says: “We’re seeing the same legislation being proposed state by state by state. And they’re not being shy in any of these places about clearly and blatantly targeting specific demographic groups, including students.” In Texas, the Republican-dominated legislature passed “emergency” legislation that was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry saying that a concealed-weapons permit is acceptable ID, but a college ID is not. Republicans in Wisconsin effectively disenfranchised every college student by requiring that acceptable IDs contain information that no colleges put on their IDs. Dane County board supervisor Analiese Eicher says, “It’s like creating a second class of citizens in terms of who gets to vote.” In Wisconsin, for example, about half of African- and Hispanic-American citizens do not have a driver’s license, and the state has an extremely small number of Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices—some of which are only open one day a month. Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) attempted to close 16 DMV offices, all in heavily Democratic-voting areas. Berman notes, “Walker planned to close a DMV in Fort Atkinson, a liberal stronghold, while opening a new office 30 minutes away in the conservative district of Watertown.” Democratic governors in five states—Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina—have all vetoed ID laws. Voters in Mississippi and Montana are considering ballot initiatives requiring voter IDs. Legislation is currently pending in Pennsylvania. Perhaps the most restrictive law was signed into effect by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC). Voters must have a free state ID to vote—but they must pay for a passport or birth certificate. Brown-Dianis says, “It’s the stepsister of the poll tax.” Many elderly black residents who were born at home in the segregated South and were never issued birth certificates can no longer vote unless they go to family court to prove their identity.
Significant Impact on 2012 Voting - Berman writes that when these measures are taken in the aggregate, the turnout of Democrats to the 2012 votes will be significantly smaller, perhaps enough to throw races to Republican candidates. In July, Clinton told a group of student activists: “One of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time. Why is all of this going on? This is not rocket science. They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.” Clinton was referring to the 2010 elections, widely considered a Republican “wave” election in part because of far smaller turnouts among young and minority voters than in 2008, and because of a large number of “tea party” voters. Clinton added, “There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.”
Cracking Down on Voter Fraud? - Republicans insist that voter fraud is rampant in America. Since George W. Bush took office in 2001 after losing the popular vote (see 9:54 p.m. December 12, 2000), his administration made “voter fraud” a top priority for Justice Department prosecutors. In 2006, the DOJ fired two US Attorneys who refused to prosecute patently fraudulent voter fraud allegations. Bush advisor Karl Rove called voter fraud “an enormous and growing problem.” He told the Republican National Lawyers Association that America is “beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are colonels in mirrored sunglasses.” The Republicans successfully destroyed the community activism group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) after false allegations were made that it was, as Berman writes, “actively recruiting armies of fake voters to misrepresent themselves at the polls and cast illegal ballots for the Democrats.” A massive DOJ probe in 2006 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for intentionally impersonating another person at the polls, an action that the DOJ claimed was at the heart of the voter fraud investigation. Eighty-six cases of voter fraud did win convictions, but most of those were immigrants and former felons who did not intentionally cast illegal votes. An enormous investigation in Wisconsin resulted in 0.0007 percent of the electorate being prosecuted for voter fraud. And the Brennan Center report found the instance of voter fraud in America extraordinarily small (see 2007).
Voter Fraud Allegations Dog Obama Victory - Republican lawmakers and activists made a raft of allegations after the November 2008 elections that placed the White House in the hands of Barack Obama (D-IL). The 29 states that register voter affiliation showed a roughly 2-1 increase in new Democratic voters over Republicans for 2008, and Obama won almost 70 percent of those votes. Election reform expert Tova Wang says flatly, “This latest flood of attacks on voting rights is a direct shot at the communities that came out in historic numbers for the first time in 2008 and put Obama over the top.” Berman cites Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as emblematic of the Republican pushback against the Obama victory. Kobach is a former Bush-era Justice Department advisor who helped push through his state’s requirement that every voter prove his or her citizenship, ignoring the fact that Kansas has prosecuted exactly one case of voter fraud since 2006. Kobach used fear of illegal immigrants to help push his requirement through, stating without evidence, “In Kansas, the illegal registration of alien voters has become pervasive.” He also stated that many people were casting ballots in the name of dead voters, and cited the example of Alfred K. Brewer as a dead voter who mysteriously voted in 2008. However, as the Wichita Eagle showed, Brewer is very much alive. “I don’t think this is heaven,” Brewer told the Eagle, “[n]ot when I’m raking leaves.” Representative John Lewis (D-AL), a civil rights crusader who was brutally beaten during the 1960s effort to win voting rights for African-Americans, says bluntly, “Voting rights are under attack in America.” On the House floor in July, Lewis told the assemblage, “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.”
Fighting Voter Disenfranchisement - Voting-rights organizations are fighting back as best they can. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is challenging several of the new voter-restriction laws in court. Congressional Democrats are pushing the Department of Justice to block or weaken laws that impede minority voters from exercising their rights. Lewis says, “The Justice Department should be much more aggressive in areas covered by the Voting Rights Act.” Meanwhile, many voting-rights experts predict chaos at the polls in November 2012, as voters react with confusion, frustration, and anger at being barred from voting. “Our democracy is supposed to be a government by, of, and for the people,” says Browne-Dianis. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what race you are, or where you live in the country—we all get to have the same amount of power by going into the voting booth on Election Day. But those who passed these laws believe that only some people should participate. The restrictions undermine democracy by cutting off the voices of the people.” (Berman 8/30/2011)
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