Suppressing the Vote

In my previous blog [Getting Out the Vote] I presented evidence showing that typical non-voters (those who are young, belong to racial and ethnic minorities, and are poor) tend to have more liberal and progressive views than those who actually turn out to vote.

This led to the conclusion that

when typical non-voters become mobilized, they can have a significant impact on both national and state policies.

Various studies were cited showing this to be the case.

My concluding observation in that blog was that

Of course, there are some who have a vested interest in keeping this from happening.

It is now time to address that issue.

Democratic presidential candidate Obama speaks to supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in NashuaIn 2008 younger and ethnically diverse Americans mobilized in large numbers to vote for a junior senator named Barack Obama. He was swept into office on a platform of “hope” and “change,” and promised much more progressive policies than the previous administration. His electoral victory reflected many of the aspirations of this normally unrepresented (or underrepresented) segment of the American public. If they had not rallied around him in such large numbers, he would not have been elected.

Conservatives responded with an orchestrated campaign to keep this newly elected president from achieving any of his goals. They also soon began an orchestrated campaign to keep to this new contingent of voters who had put him in office from doing so again. If Republicans could not win the support of the traditional non-voters who were now turning out to vote, they would have to limit the participation of this group in future elections.

defund ObamacareIn the 2010 midterm elections the traditional conservative base was whipped into a frenzy in opposing Obama’s signature piece of legislation – the Affordable Care Act. They turned out in strong numbers to oppose Obama and defeat Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, the contingent of Obama’s youthful, racially diverse supporters from 2008 failed to materialize in the 2010 “off-year” election. Republicans not only took back the House of Representatives, but also took control of many state legislatures and governorships.

Emboldened by their sizeable gains, especially at the state level, Republicans began to put forward legislation to restrict voters from this decidedly pro-Obama demographic group from voting in future elections. Writing in Talking Points Memo in January 2014, Tova Andrea Wang states that

Following the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans made major gains across the country, a tsunami of bills were introduced that were clearly designed to throw up obstacles to voting for traditionally Democratic constituencies: African Americans, low income people, immigrants, among others.

Show IDThis legislation mainly focused on what are commonly referred to as Voter ID laws. In its formal report on “Voting Law Changes in 2012” the Brennan Center for Justice stated that large Republican gains in the 2010 midterms turned voter ID laws into a “major legislative priority.”

In the year 2011 legislators in 34 states introduced bills requiring voters show photo IDs. In states that already had existing voter ID laws, lawmakers toughened the statutes, often requiring proof of photo identification. Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania passed the toughest legislation not allowing voters to cast a regular ballot without first showing a valid photo ID.

Voter ID lawsAccording to the Brennan Center, about 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID. Nate Silver at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog estimated that these restrictions could decrease voter turnout anywhere between 0.8 and 2.4 percent – enough to reverse the outcome of any close electoral race.

Prominent Republican officials championed these laws. In a much quoted statement, Mike Turzai, the majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, praised the the Pennsylvania legislature for passing its new law, saying, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

More laws went into effect after June 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court in struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required certain areas, such as states in the South, to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, stated, “We haven’t seen a legislative movement like this since Reconstruction”

Some of those laws were later struck down as unconstitutional, but many others still stand. [Go here to see a descriptive listing of these laws as of May 2014.] At present, 22 states have voter restriction laws that still stand and can be used to shift the outcome in tight electoral races.

let the people voteThe respected academic journal Perspectives on Politics contained a report in its December 2013 issue by Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien entitled, “Jim Crow 2.0? Why States Consider and Adopt Restrictive Voter Access Policies.” In analyzing “the proposal and adoption of restrictive voter access legislation” through 2011, the authors state,

Our results indicate that proposal and passage are highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs. These findings are consistent with a scenario in which the targeted demobilization of minority voters and African Americans is a central driver of recent legislative developments.

Their analysis shows that

in those states where there were a larger percentage of minority voters … , the number of laws restricting voting rights proposed by lawmakers also went up. Similarly, in those states where the percentage of low-income voters rose, the response was to propose more laws making it harder to vote. In those states with a bigger African-American population, more restrictive legislation also passed and became law.

They also found that in the states where Republicans dominated the legislature the most, there the most restrictive voting laws were passed. Furthermore, “in ‘swing states,’ where Republicans feared losing power, Republican lawmakers responded by passing lots of laws to make voting harder in 2011.”

In reviewing this research article, Harold Pollack of the Washington Monthly concluded that

Republican governors and legislatures have sought to hinder minority turnout for partisan purposes. States were especially likely to pass restrictive voting laws if Republicans were politically dominant, but [also] where the state observed rising minority turnout or where the state was becoming more competitive in the national presidential race.

A later study from the University of Southern California similarly concluded that

“discriminatory intent underlies legislative support for voter identification laws.”

The Campaign against “Voter Fraud”

SAMSUNG DIGITAL MOVIEThe rational given for these restrictive voting laws was that they were necessary to prevent “voter fraud.” And yet voter fraud has been found to be extremely rare

A Justice Department study found that between 2002 and 2005, just 40 voters (out of 197 million votes cast for federal candidates) were indicted for voter fraud, and just 26 resulted in convictions or guilty pleas.

A more recent study by political scientists at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin similarly found that

virtually all the major scholarship on voter impersonation fraud – based largely on specific allegations and criminal investigations – has concluded that it is vanishingly rare, and certainly nowhere near the numbers necessary to have an effect on any election.

In July of this year Christopher Ingram of the Washington Post provided a comprehensive overview of “7 papers, 4 government inquiries, 2 news investigations and 1 court ruling proving voter fraud is mostly a myth.”

Also in July 2014 Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola University Law School and an expert in constitutional law with a particular focus on election administration and redistricting, reported on his own exhaustive review of voter fraud cases saying,

I’ve been tracking allegations of fraud for years now, including the fraud ID laws are designed to stop. In 2008, when the Supreme Court weighed in on voter ID, I looked at every single allegation put before the Court. And since then, I’ve been following reports wherever they crop up.

So far, I’ve found about 31 different incidents (some of which involve multiple ballots) since 2000, anywhere in the country.

To put this in perspective, the 31 incidents [arise from] general, primary, special, and municipal elections from 2000 through 2014. In general and primary elections alone, more than 1 billion ballots were cast in that period.

Fraud Concept - Magnifying Glass.It’s time for everyone to understand that voter ID laws aren’t really about preventing fraud. They are about keeping certain people from becoming eligible to vote. Voter ID laws require a person to present an approved state issued form of ID when they appear at a polling station so that they cannot impersonate another person when they vote. However, the vast majority of these laws do nothing to prevent people from mailing in fraudulent ballots, which is the most common form of voter fraud. But the designers of these laws do not sem to be overly concerned about that.

As Sarah Childress reported in October 2014,

A FRONTLINE analysis of voting laws nationwide found that only six of the 31 states that require ID at the polls apply those standards to absentee voters, who are generally whiter and older than in-person voters. …

In 2012, nearly half, or 46 percent, of mail-in voters were aged 60 and older, and more than 75 percent were white, according to an analysis by Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who tracks demographic trends in voting. Older white Americans generally are more likely to vote Republican.

[On the other hand,] African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are less likely to use mail-in ballots.

African-Americans tend to show up at the polls in person, often coming in groups bussed in from their churches to cast their ballots in advance on the Sunday before the election. Curiously, many states governed by Republican administrations have moved to eliminate advance polling on these Sundays.

It is also difficult for many poorer Americans to obtain these required voter IDs. As Childress reports,

African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to lack one of these qualifying IDs … . Even when the state offers a free photo ID, these voters, who are disproportionately low-income, may not be able to procure the underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, to obtain one.

She notes that

Six of the 16 states that have passed voter ID laws since 2010 have a documented history of discriminating against minority voters. All but one of those states’ laws were put in place after the Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required them to seek approval from the Justice Department for any voting-law changes (emphasis added).

Voter-ID-protestThe unpleasant fact is that these voter ID laws as they have been implemented are discriminatory against the poor, who often are Hispanic or African-Americans, and who tend to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans. Robert Levine, along with many others, has called it a new “poll tax” on the poor. He explains that,

Poll taxes had been in effect prior to the Civil War, with all male citizens having to pay a fee in order to vote. However, post-Civil War, the tax was selectively aimed at disenfranchising black citizens, as they were too poor to pay the fees. Similarly, since most of the former slaves had little if any education, and the school systems for blacks were generally inadequate after they were freed, literacy tests were merely a means to prevent them from casting ballots in states where whites controlled all the levers of power. Mississippi initiated the literacy tests in 1890, with other Southern states following their lead. It wasn’t until the 24th Amendment passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that poll taxes and literacy tests were declared illegal and new ways to disenfranchise minorities had to be found.

Thus, the latest iteration, voter ID laws that have been passed in the red states where the legislatures and governorships are in Republican hands. The supposed rationale for these laws is to prevent voter fraud and to encourage voter turnout. But the real … reason these laws have been passed is to curb voting by minorities, older and disabled people, and hourly workers, most of whom tend to vote Democratic. There are a higher percentage of people among these groups who do not have driver’s licenses or special IDs and it is difficult for many of these people to get the necessary IDs because they don’t drive, don’t have the necessary funds, or can’t get time off from work.

There is much more that could be reported. I have not even mentioned the attempts to restrict voting among college students or the fact that due to incredibly high incarcerations rates for African-Americans, 1 in 13 Blacks are legally prohibited from voting.

Returning to the point made earlier: afraid of losing control, Republicans have mounted a concerted attempt to keep youth, racial minorities and the poor from being able to vote in elections. It is, in my view, a desperate measure, and it is shameful. This is America, where everyone should be given an equal opportunity to vote.

Photo credits: Reuters; Corbis; Pat Carter (AP); Marc Levy (AP)

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

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