Voter Suppression Laws Threaten Basic Voting Rights

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Voter Suppression Rally, NYAt a rally in New York City, union members spoke up for the right to vote.

For the first time in decades, America is seeing a rollback in what had been a steady expansion of voting rights.

A year ago, Georgia and Indiana were the only states requiring voters to show photo identification cards. Since then, 34 states have introduced voter ID legislation. Five of the bills passed, five were vetoed and the rest are pending in state legislatures, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which notes that about 11 percent of adult citizens, or 21 million people, don't have a valid government-issued photo ID. The motivation behind this legislation has little or nothing to do with claims of voter fraud. Evidence of such fraud is extremely low.

The Brennan Center says these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, low-income and African-American voters, who tend to vote Democratic. In fact, the percentage of potential voters who don't have photo IDs is significantly higher among African-Americans (25 percent) and low-income Americans (15 percent).

The volume of legislation may tilt the scales in this year's elections. Based on the Brennan Center's analysis:

  • These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots this year.
  • States that have cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes this fall, about two-thirds of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
  • Of 12 likely battleground states, as assessed by a Los Angeles Times analysis of Gallup polling last year, five have cut back on voting rights.

Although it's too early to tell how much the ID requirement would limit voter turnout, bear in mind that fewer than two-thirds of eligible voters turn out for presidential elections now. States that require photo IDs are making them available at no cost, but voters (especially women) often have to buy copies of their birth certificates, marriage licenses or divorce decrees to prove their identity.

A voter whose driver's license has expired, or who has to take a day off work to go to city hall for a copy of a birth certificate, may just say "to heck with it," notes AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson. "We are very troubled by voter ID laws, and we will fight them."

A few examples, by state:

  • Strict new photo ID laws, if they withstand scrutiny by the courts, could make voting this year tougher in Kansas, Texas and Wisconsin, according to the Brennan Center.
  • Florida's new law, like those in Louisiana, Michigan and three other states, will ask voters to show photo IDs and allow those without IDs to cast a ballot only under certain conditions—for example, by signing an affidavit. This will complicate voting for low-income workers, minorities and young adults, reports the Fair Elections Legal Network.
  • In Kansas, the secretary of state is pushing legislators to move up from January 2013 to this June a requirement for voters to present proof of citizenship.
  • In Maryland, pending legislation would force voters who don't show an ID to cast only a provisional ballot.
  • In New Mexico, a bill would require voters to present valid government IDs as well as require two poll workers to match IDs with voter registration rolls.

One vivid example of voter suppression comes from Wisconsin, where last year the same Republican lawmakers who had attacked bargaining also succeeded in passing voter ID legislation. The new law requires prospective voters to show a picture ID before they can cast a ballot. While this sounds simple, it's not. Since the law was signed, local governments in Wisconsin have been closing Department of Motor Vehicles offices and changing their hours of operation in ways that compel residents to miss work or find a ride if they want to obtain a picture ID.

Your voice can be heard
As grim as this is, it's not all bad news. Facing a voter revolt in Ohio, top state officials are calling on lawmakers to repeal a 2011 voter suppression law that shortens the early voting period. Bad legislation was shelved in Maine last November when citizens voted overwhelmingly to defeat a bill that would have ended same-day voter registration.

Meanwhile, a recent state hearing in Florida spotlighted voter suppression. Coalitions in Tennessee and Wisconsin are helping voters obtain IDs. And groups such as the NAACP, Voces de la Frontera and the American Civil Liberties Union are bringing lawsuits against Wisconsin's new voter ID law.

The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing voter legislation in states and jurisdictions subject to the federal Voting Rights Act. "We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence—and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech last December. He urged Americans to speak out and "raise awareness about what's at stake."

Holder made those remarks shortly after the Justice Department rejected a South Carolina voter ID law on the grounds that it discriminated against minorities and thus violated the Voting Rights Act.

To protest voter suppression nationwide, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City joined the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and other partners in a massive rally and march from the offices of Charles and David Koch (who fund anti-voter measures) to the United Nations last December. "People are not aware of how important this is," says Shelvy Abrams, chair of the UFT's paraprofessional unit and an AFT vice president. Although New York doesn't require voter IDs, she adds, "If we don't wake up and smell the roses, it's going to come to us."

And in Alabama in early March, the annual commemoration of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. took on fresh significance. Alabama AFT members joined other voting and immigrant rights activists marching to defeat voter suppression laws and to reverse anti-immigration laws nationwide. "Alabama could become one of those states where you have to prove you're a U.S. citizen to vote," says Derryn Moten, co-president of the Faculty-Staff Alliance at Alabama State University.

Speaking at the same rally, AFT president Randi Weingarten noted, "It is sad and outrageous that we find ourselves fighting the same battles we thought we won almost 50 years ago." Urging the crowd to register, she said, "Vote! Fight to ensure economic dignity and strength!"

See a map of laws and legislative action in your state.

Visit the Fair Elections Legal Network blog. [Annette Licitra]

March 13, 2012