This post is the second in a three-part series on last night’s voting rights speech by Attorney General Eric Holder. Part I is here.
Republicans justify their vote suppressing “voter ID” laws by raising imagined fears of in person voter fraud. In their mythology, armies of votes arrive at the polls every year to stuff the ballot box with extra ballots cast under false names. In truth, of course, a voter is 39 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to actually commit fraud at the polls.
Yet, as Attorney General Holder explained in last night’s speech, this does not mean that election fraud is entirely a myth. Another, much more virulent form infects American democracy:
Over the years, we’ve seen all sorts of attempts to gain partisan advantage by keeping people away from the polls – from literacy tests and poll taxes, to misinformation campaigns telling people that Election Day has been moved, or that only one adult per household can cast a ballot. Before the 2004 elections, fliers were distributed in minority neighborhoods in Milwaukee, falsely claiming that “[I]f anybody in your family has ever been found guilty [of a crime], you can’t vote in the presidential election” – and you risk a 10-year prison sentence if you do. Two years later, 14,000 Latino voters in Orange County, California, received mailings, warning in Spanish that, “[If] you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that can result in jail time.” Both of these blatant falsehoods likely deterred some eligible citizens from going to the polls.
And, just last week, the campaign manager of a Maryland gubernatorial candidate was convicted on election fraud charges for approving anonymous “robocalls” that went out on Election Day last year to more than 100,000 voters in the state’s two largest majority-black jurisdictions. These calls encouraged voters to stay home – telling them to “relax” because their preferred candidate had already wrapped up a victory.
To his credit, Holder’s boss, President Obama, has a long history of fighting against these very real forms of election fraud. In 2006, Maryland gubernatorial and Republican Senate candidates Bob Ehrlich and Michael Steele hired hundreds of people to pass out misleading flyers in African-American precincts which falsely suggested that Ehrlich and Steele were actually Democrats and that they were endorsed by three leading black politicians. Then-Senator Obama responded by joining with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to introduce the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2007. One of the big pieces of news in Holder’s speech last night is that this bill is making a come back:
In an effort to deter and punish such harmful practices, during his first year in the U.S. Senate, President Obama introduced legislation that would establish tough criminal penalties for those who engage in fraudulent voting practices – and would help to ensure that citizens have complete and accurate information about where and when to vote. Unfortunately, this proposal did not move forward. But I’m pleased to announce that – tomorrow – Senators Charles Schumer and Ben Cardin will re-introduce this legislation, in an even stronger form. I applaud their leadership – and I look forward to working with them as Congress considers this important legislation.
This is excellent news. It is not enough for supporters of voting rights to combat anti-voter laws by simply trying to keep them from passing. Protecting the right to vote means playing offense, and that means passing new legislation designed to protect each voter’s most important civil right. Moreover, while Cardin & Schumer’s legislation is unlikely to pass so long as John Boehner is Speaker, there is no reason why similar legislation cannot be taken up by state lawmakers who share their concern for American democracy.