What States Are Doing To Restrict Voting Rights

Perhaps the most nefarious legislation to pop up in states over the past year have been new laws intended to make it more difficult for people to vote. In an unprecedented move, Republican-controlled legislatures have passed a wide range of new bills in 2011 that will restrict, rather than broaden, access to the ballot box. As a result, the Brennan Center for Justice estimates that as many as 5 million voters could be disenfranchised in the 2012 election. These new laws could be enough, Rolling Stone writes, “to shift the outcome in favor of the GOP.” Indeed, with poorer voters and minorities hit hardest by the new restrictions, Republicans could see an electoral windfall in 2012 simply by changing election rules. Thirty-one years after Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and father of the modern conservative movement, told a Dallas crowd that “I don’t want everybody to vote,” Republicans are making good on his call to making voting more difficult in the United States. Let’s take a closer look at the different ways in which states are make voting significantly more difficult.

WAR ON VOTING: Perhaps the most sweeping change in voting rights since the 2010 election is the proliferation of state laws requiring citizens to present photo identification in order to vote. First introduced in Indiana in 2008, new “photo ID” laws have the potential to disenfranchise 3.2 million voters, mostly poorer residents and minorities. This was plainly evident when a group of retired nuns in the Hoosier State were turned away from voting in the 2008 primary election because they lacked proper photo identification. Three years later, half a dozen new states have followed Indiana’s lead: Georgia, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Rather than each state independently concluding that they needed a photo ID law, model legislation was pushed to state lawmakers by the right-wing corporate front group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In South Carolina alone, a new study warns that “nearly 180,000 voters – most of whom are elderly, student, minority or low-income voters – will be disenfranchised as a result of this discriminatory bill.” Meanwhile, a 96-year-old Tennessee woman named Dorothy Cooper attempted to comply with her state’s new photo ID law this month, only to be denied a voter ID because she didn’t have her marriage certificate. Cooper later told MSNBC that her experience now is worse than in the Jim Crow era. Unperturbed, some politicians like Herman Cain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have thrown their support behind a national photo ID law. The war on voting isn’t just restricted to new photo ID laws; five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia – have reduced their early voting periods as well.

RESTRICTING REGISTRATION: The war on voting isn’t simply resigned to Election Day. Instead, a number of Republican-controlled states are making it more difficult to even get registered in the first place. Such restrictions generally come in three forms: new requirements for individuals attempting to register, onerous regulations on non-profit organizations that conduct voter registration drives, and restrictions on when people are permitted to register. In Kansas and Alabama, those wishing to register to vote must now provide proof of citizenship first. Other states like Florida and Texas have opted to make it significantly harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register people to vote. Project Vote said the new Florida law, which requires “complicated, onerous filings” including a mandate to turn in completed voter registration forms within 48 hours of completion, will “make it next to impossible” for nonprofit voting groups to continue their work. As a result, the League of Women Voters chose to suspend its voter registration drives in the Sunshine State. Michigan is currently considering a bill similar to Florida’s, but with just a 24-hour window to submit voter registration forms. In Maine, the Republican-controlled legislature has taken a different path, choosing to repeal the state’s 38-year-old law allowing citizens to register to vote at the polls on Election Day. The law worked remarkably well for decades, making Maine the top state in 2010 voter turnout without benefiting either particular party. Fortunately, the repeal of Election Day Registration is now subject to a citizen’s veto and will come up for a vote on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

PHANTOM MENACE OF FRAUD: Conservatives’ justification for the new restrictions on voting rights is that they are necessary to head off voter fraud. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus underscored this argument, claiming that non-profit voter organizations like ACORN submitted 400,000 fraudulent registrations in 2008. This zeal to restrict voting rights in the name of preventing fraud was also evident in Maine last month, where the state Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster drew up a list of 206 University of Maine students with out-of-state home addresses and accused them of voter fraud. The Republican Secretary of State subsequently took this list and sent threatening letters to the students, complete with a form to cancel their voter registration in Maine. In fact, as the Brennan Center for Justice notes in two new reports, electoral voter fraud is largely a myth. In a heralded paper titled “The Truth About Voter Fraud“, the Brennan Center notes that “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.” Indeed, most cases of voter fraud “can be traced to causes far more logical than fraud by voters,” including clerical or typographical errors, mismatched entries, and simple mistakes on either end. In Wisconsin, for instance, approximately 3 million votes were cast in 2004, of which just seven were ultimately deemed invalid – all from felons who were unaware of their ineligibility. Comedian Stephen Colbert recently mocked the need for photo ID laws, noting that fraud occurs in “a jaw dropping 44 one-millionths of one percent” of votes.

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