As the U.S population grows and the number of eligible voters continues to climb with each election cycle, a disturbing trend of limiting voter access to the polls is taking place. With 2012 on the horizon, states are already gearing up to ensure that barriers are installed across the voting process, from restrictions on voter registration to strict requirements at the polls. It's been called “the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century.”
Legislators justify the vast majority of this legislation by claiming they are merely attempting to prevent widespread voter fraud. The Brennan Center for Justice conducted the most extensive analysis of voter fraud allegations and concluded that proponents of voter ID laws could not find "a proven example of a single vote cast at the polls in someone else’s name that could be stopped by a pollsite photo ID rule." (PDF)
Combating "voter fraud" is a red herring. It doesn't take more than a passing glance at the 2008 results map to understand why Republicans have been working so diligently to decrease the vote, especially in states where President Obama won by a slim margin.
For the most part, the recent changes represent a dismal outlook for voting rights advocates. Republican successes at the state level have empowered the GOP with the ability to craft and adopt even the most restrictive election laws. While voting rights groups and others are taking many of these fights to the courts, there's no denying that enforcing these unduly restrictive laws is a cornerstone of the Republican 2012 strategy.
That said, while most of these changes have been pushed by largely Republican legislatures, they have not been able to be passed in some areas without the “help” of Democratic representatives. The changes vary from ballot access to voter registration and more, but most fall into three broad categories:
Papers, Please: Voter I.D. and Proof of Citizenship Requirements
Survey after survey confirms the fact that millions of Americans -– between 6%-11% -- do not have a government issued photo ID. The Brennan Center has found (PDF) that "as many as 7% of United States citizens – 13 million individuals – do not have ready access to citizenship documents." The survey also found that "as many as 32 million voting-age women may have available only proof of citizenship documents that do not reflect their current name" and that citizens with low incomes are more likely not to have ready access to their citizenship documents.
Those startling numbers haven't stopped state legislatures from adopting voter ID laws or pursuing proof of citizenship requirements for voter registration. According to Election Protection, "proposed legislation that would require voters to produce photo identification at the polls is popping up in roughly half of the states across the country."
In the past few months alone, Tennessee, Maine, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin have already signed into law or have passed laws that require voter ID. Similar laws are pending in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Ohio. In Minnesota, Governor Dayton (D) vetoed a restrictive voter ID bill, and Governor Schweitzer (D) did the same in Montana recently.
Proof of citizenship for voter registration was part of the draconian Arizona law that made headlines last year. A court overturned that requirement. However, this week, Alabama adopted a similar approach in a law.
With the United States Supreme Court upholding Indiana's restrictive voter ID law, it was only a matter of time before legislatures from coast to coast followed that state's lead. The landscape on voter ID has changed. The facts, however, have not:
Out of almost 400 million votes cast in general elections alone since 2000, the briefs [of the State of Indiana and its allies] cite one attempt at impersonation that was thwarted without a photo ID requirement, and nine unresolved cases where impersonation fraud at the polls was suspected but not proven. Nine possible examples out of hundreds of millions — and these nine cases might just as well have been due to clerical error. Not one of these cited reports occurred in Indiana.
If You Shorten It, They Won't Come: Slashing Early and Absentee Voting Periods
Around 30% of registered voters cast their ballots early in 2008. To put the increase in early voting in perspective, in 1972, just 4% of ballots were cast early. In 2004, the number was around 20%. As the chart on the right from Professor Michael McDonald at George Mason University illustrates, the American people like early voting and have been using the opportunity to cast their ballots early more and more every year. Early voting alleviates long lines and empowers voters to vote on their own schedules.
The power of early voting was particularly present during the 2008 election. The nation braced itself for the 10-hour long wait lines that we saw in Ohio in 2004. It didn't happen. Rather, more Americans took advantage of expanded early voting periods, thus easing congestion on Election Day and ensuring that everyone who wanted to cast a vote could do so.
Expanded early voting, one could say, was a victim of its own success. Republicans in particular looked at how Democrats had used aggressive early voting field operations to turn out the vote and sparked a wave of early voting reforms from coast to coast.
In Ohio, voting early on Sundays is on the chopping block and absentee voting also looks to be shaved down. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker (R) signed a bill that drastically cut back on early voting periods and Governor Scott (R) in Florida did the same. Meanwhile, the North Carolina House recently passed a bill cutting its early voting period in half.
Banishing same-day registration
According to Project Vote, election day registration (EDR) “has proven to be a significant boost to voter participation in the states that have adopted it. In those states, average turnout rates are 10-12 percentage points higher than national averages, showing the strength of EDR’s ability to lower barriers to voter participation.”
Again, the success of the policy has marked it for elimination by Republicans. In Maine, the House has approved a bill that would end EDR. EDR has been in place for 38 years in Maine, but the GOP -- whose chairman claimed Democrats "steal elections" using EDR -- is trying to end the practice. In Montana, Governor Schweitzer vetoed a bill that would end EDR last month (you can see Schweitzer branding -- literally -- the bill with a "veto" here).
The whirlwind of election reforms has taken place in some 13 states in eight weeks alone.
Last week, the New York Times penned an editorial, "They Want to Make Voting Harder?" that explained the mad dash to upend election laws before the 2012 election:
Two states in the region have already reduced early-voting periods, and lawmakers in others are considering doing so. It is the latest element of a well-coordinated effort by Republican state legislators across the country to disenfranchise voters who tend to support Democrats, particularly minorities and young people.
The biggest part of that effort, imposing cumbersome requirements that voters have a government ID, has been painted as a response to voter fraud, an essentially nonexistent problem. But Republican lawmakers also have taken a good look at voting patterns, realized that early voting might have played a role in Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory, and now want to reduce that possibility in 2012.
Mr. Obama won North Carolina, for example, by less than 15,000 votes. That state has had early voting since 2000, and in 2008, more ballots were cast before Election Day than on it. Mr. Obama won those early votes by a comfortable margin. So it is no coincidence that the North Carolina House passed a measure — along party lines — that would cut the early voting period by a week, reducing it to a week and a half before the election. The Senate is preparing a similar bill, which we hope Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, will veto if it reaches her.
As the NYT also points out, the battle to decrease early voting periods is also a not-so-subtle attempt to depress minority turnout:
Blacks voting early in the South jumped from about 13 percent in 2004 to 33 percent in 2008, according to the studies, significantly outpacing the percentage of whites.
One of the biggest jumps was in Georgia, where, over the objections of several black lawmakers, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed a bill in April that would cut back in-person early voting to 21 days, from 45 days.
With the GOP presidential field being as bizarre and chaotic as it is, Republicans are well aware that they do not have a leader yet to market Republican ideas to the American people. They also know that they need an excellent marketer, a miracle worker, some might say, since the American people don't agree with those ideas. The latest polls even show Americans agree with Democrats on gay marriage, along with other issues such as climate change, tax policy and more.
Since Republicans can't change the progressive-leaning policy positions of Americans, they're changing the rules so that fewer Americans have the chance to express those positions at the polls. It's disgusting. It's outrageous. And absent voter education and lawsuits, there's little Democrats and voting rights advocates can do about it before the 2012 election.
Let this tide of anti-voter reforms remind us all that while national politics may be flashier than state politics, the composition of our state legislatures and the party affiliation of the governors who wield the veto pens should be of paramount importance to us all.