Voter Suppression 101
How Conservatives Are Conspiring to Disenfranchise Millions of Americans
SOURCE: AP/Tony Dejak
A woman votes at at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on January 31, 2012, in Cleveland. Conservative legislators are introducing and passing legislation that creates new barriers for those registering to vote, shortens the early voting period, imposes new requirements for already-registered voters, and rigs the Electoral College in select states.
By Scott Keyes, Ian Millhiser, Tobin Van Ostern, Abraham White | April 4, 2012
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The right to vote is under attack all across our country. Conservative legislators are introducing and passing legislation that creates new barriers for those registering to vote, shortens the early voting period, imposes new requirements for already-registered voters, and rigs the Electoral College in select states. Conservatives fabricate reasons to enact these laws—voter fraud is exceedingly rare—in their efforts to disenfranchise as many potential voters among certain groups, such as college students, low-income voters, and minorities, as possible. Rather than modernizing our democracy to ensure that all citizens have access to the ballot box, these laws hinder voting rights in a manner not seen since the era of Jim Crow laws enacted in the South to disenfranchise blacks after Reconstruction in the late 1800s.
Talk about turning back the clock! At its best, America has utilized the federal legislative process to augment voting rights. Constitutional amendments such as the 12th, 14th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 23rd, and 26th have steadily improved the system by which our elections take place while expanding the pool of Americans eligible to participate. Yet in 2011, more than 30 state legislatures considered legislation to make it harder for citizens to vote, with over a dozen of those states succeeding in passing these bills. Anti-voting legislation appears to be continuing unabated so far in 2012.
Unfortunately, the rapid spread of these proposals in states as different as Florida and Wisconsin is not occurring by accident. Instead, many of these laws are being drafted and spread through corporate-backed entities such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, as uncovered in a previous Center for American Progress investigative report. Detailed in that report, ALEC charges corporations such as Koch Industries Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and The Coca-Cola Co. a fee and gives them access to members of state legislatures. Under ALEC’s auspices, legislators, corporate representatives, and ALEC officials work together to draft model legislation. As ALEC spokesperson Michael Bowman told NPR, this system is especially effective because “you have legislators who will ask questions much more freely at our meetings because they are not under the eyes of the press, the eyes of the voters.”
The investigative report included for the first time a leaked copy of ALEC’s model Voter ID legislation, which was approved by the ALEC board of directors in late 2009. This model legislation prohibited certain forms of identification, such as student IDs, and has been cited as the legislative model from groups ranging from Tea Party organizations to legislators proposing the actual legislation such as Wisconsin’s Voter ID proposal from Republican state Rep. Stone and Republican state Sen. Joe Leibham.
Registering the poor “to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.”
-Conservative columnist Matthew Vadum
Similar legislation had been proposed during the early 2000s in states such as Missouri, but the legislation frequently failed to be passed. Seeking new avenues, the George W. Bush administration prioritized the conviction of voter fraud to the point where two U.S. attorneys were allegedly fired in 2004 for failing to pursue electoral fraud cases at the level required by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. In fact, three years after first prioritizing election fraud in 2002, Ashcroft’s efforts had produced only 95 defendants charged with election-fraud, compared to 80,424 criminal cases concluded in a given year.
These efforts were dismal in terms of effectiveness and convictions, but news reports from 2007 pointed out that simply “pursuing an investigation can be just as effective as a conviction in providing that ammunition and creating an impression with the public that some sort of electoral reform is necessary.”
With this groundwork laid, ALEC today is spearheading these efforts anew. These new antivoting laws are being challenged legally by a variety of nonpartisan organizations ranging from Rock the Vote to the League of Women Voters to the Public Interest Research Group. Additionally, the Department of Justice is reviewing some of the new state laws for possible violations of the Voting Rights Act, which freezes changes in election practices or procedures in nine southern states due to their history of voter suppression in the past.
This issue brief focuses on both the current status of various antivoter measures throughout our country as well as the legal challenges they face. Readers will learn how conservatives want to return to past practices of voter suppression to preserve their political power, and looks at several instances where progressives are fighting back successfully.
Let’s begin with voter registration restrictions. In a handful of states, legislators aren’t just making it more difficult to vote; they’re making it more difficult for citizens even to register in the first place. Lawmakers in half a dozen states made a variety of changes to the registration process in 2011. These include limiting when citizens can register, restricting who is permitted to help them, and implementing tougher bureaucratic requirements to register.
Nowhere has the war on registration been more controversial than the state of Maine. Since 1973, Mainers have been permitted to register to vote at the ballot box. For nearly 40 years, the system worked smoothly—separate lines for registering and voting are used to prevent congestion—and just two instances of voter fraud were found in the entire span.
Nevertheless, when an unusually conservative group of lawmakers took over both statehouse chambers and the governorship in 2010, one of their primary orders of business was to repeal the state’s law permitting citizens to register on Election Day. Fortunately, in the ensuing weeks citizens of the state rallied to collect tens of thousands of signatures and force a vote on the matter. In November 2011, 61 percent of Mainers rebuked the legislature and voted to restore Election Day registration in their state.
“I don’t want everybody to vote.”
-Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich
Alas, voting rights proponents in other states have not been as successful. In Florida and Texas, for example, lawmakers succeeded in placing onerous new restrictions on nonprofit organizations that help register new voters. Voter registration drives by groups such as the League of Women Voters have been a staple of our democracy for years, helping thousands of citizens to register, regardless of their political affiliation.
In the Sunshine State, however, those may now be a thing of the past. Last July, the League of Women Voters announced it would no longer operate in Florida because of new antivoter legislation—including complicated new filing requirements and a mandate to submit completed registration forms within 48 hours of completion or face a hefty fine—made it nearly impossible for them to continue their work.
The Lone Star State also placed unnecessary new requirements on groups and individuals interested in helping register others. Texas lawmakers in May passed legislation requiring that people who help register voters, known as volunteer deputy registrars, must also be eligible Texas voters themselves. The new law has a number of unintended consequences. For instance, legal permanent residents who are in the process of obtaining their citizenship would be barred from learning the political process by helping register others. Many such immigrants are currently employed as deputy registrars; this new law would likely result in their firing.
What’s more, disabled Texans who are considered full guardians of the state and ineligible to vote would be shut out as well. One disabled gentleman had carried voter registration forms in his wheelchair for years, eager to register others for a democratic process he himself could not participate in. Under the new law, it would be illegal for him to continue registering new voters. As of February 2012, Texas’s new law remains not in effect while the Justice Department determines whether it complies with the Voting Rights Act.
Kansas, Alabama, and Tennessee took a slightly different route, augmenting the required documentation necessary to register to vote. Each passed laws requiring residents to prove their citizenship before registering, either by presenting a birth certificate or passport. Less than a third of Americans currently own a passport, and citizens who don’t have access to their birth certificate would be forced to pay for one in order to vote—an almost certain violation of the 24th Amendment’s ban on poll taxes. The problem is not small; at least 7 percent of Americans don’t have easy access to a birth certificate or similar citizenship document.
Arizona and Georgia also passed similar legislation prior to 2011. The Justice Department is currently reviewing Georgia and Alabama’s changes for compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and Arizona’s law is being challenged in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Another avenue where conservatives are proposing to limit voting rights is tightening the residency requirements. The intended effect of these measures is to make it difficult, if not impossible, for out-of-state college students to vote where they attend school.
In Maine, young voters are being targeted even more brazenly. In September 2011 Maine’s secretary of state sent a threatening letter to hundreds of college students who were legally registered to vote in the state, implying that many of them were in violation of election law and suggesting they correct this by unregistering in Maine. The list of college students targeted for this letter came directly from the Maine Republican Party Chairman, underscoring just how partisan the voter suppression effort in Maine has become. New Hampshire is now considering stricter residency requirements for Granite State voters as well.
All of this is especially surprising given the Supreme Court’s decision in Symm v. United States, where it upheld a lower court decision establishing that states cannot place obstacles unique to college students between those students and their right to vote.
Limiting early voting
Following widespread voting problems in the 2000 election that had nothing to do with voter fraud—from extraordinarily long lines to hanging chads—many states moved to ease the burden on clerks and citizens by allowing people to vote prior to Election Day. Ohio and Florida were the epicenter of these problems, and both states moved to prevent similar problems in the future by allowing early voting.
Among conservatives, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was a major proponent of such reforms, calling them a “wonderful” way to “provide access to the polls.” As a result, over half of Sunshine State voters cast their ballot before Election Day in 2008.
Yet three years later, lawmakers in the state moved to limit the availability of early voting. In Florida voters had previously been permitted two weeks of early voting prior to the election; lawmakers rolled that back to eight days. Ohio lawmakers went even further, reducing the state’s early voting period from 35 days to just 11. Ari Berman also notes in Rolling Stone that “both states banned voting on the Sunday before the election—a day when black churches historically mobilize their constituents.”
Other states have successfully rolled back their early voting periods as well. Georgia reduced early voting from 45 to 21 days, Wisconsin shortened their period by 16 days, West Virginia by five days, and Tennessee by two.
In one bright spot, voting rights proponents in the Buckeye State are fighting back against the new changes. Hundreds of thousands of Ohioans signed a petition to hold a referendum on the voting changes, suspending the law until voters decide its fate in November 2012.
Voter ID laws
The chief sponsor of Georgia’s voter ID legislation, Rep. Sue Burmeister (R-Augusta), told the Justice Department the bill would keep more African Americans from voting, which was fine with her since “if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud.”
The most common type of voter-related legislation in 2011 was the mandate that individuals must show certain kinds of government-issued photo ID at the polls before being allowed to vote. To date, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin have all passed such laws, and similar measures have been proposed by 24 more.
But with more than 1 in 10 voters (over 21 million Americans) currently lacking these photo IDs, it’s clear that such laws could have a disastrous effect. Voter ID laws have the potential to exclude millions of Americans, especially seniors, students, minorities, and people in rural areas. One example is Osceola, Wisconsin: A small town in the northwestern part of the state with a population of under 3,000 people. The town is 30 minutes away from the nearest DMV offices and both are rarely open.
Defenders of these laws claim they are necessary to prevent voter fraud. In reality they are a solution in search of a problem. There’s virtually no such fraud in American elections— and it’s not even remotely close to being the epidemic that some elected officials have made it out to be. In the 2004 election, for example, about 3 million votes were cast in Wisconsin—only seven were declared invalid—all of which were cast by felons who had finished their sentences and didn’t realize they were still barred from voting. As a result, Wisconsin’s overall fraud rate came in at a whopping 0.00023 percent.
The only kind of voter fraud that is supposed to be prevented by these laws is one voter impersonating another. Not only would impersonating other voters one-by-one be an absurd strategy for stealing an entire election, but the already-existing penalties—five years in prison and a $10,000 fine—are doing an effective job at preventing such fraud.
Yet, while these laws would prevent few if any actual cases of voter fraud, they could disenfranchise millions of ID-less voters. And they are clearly illegal under longstanding voting rights law. The Voting Rights Act not only forbids laws that are passed specifically to target minority voters but also strikes down state laws that have a greater impact on minority voters than on others. Because Voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, they clearly fit within the Voting Rights Act’s prohibition.