Last year, Republicans opened up an attack on voting rights unseen since the Jim Crow era. In states as varied as Kansas, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, conservative legislators passed a range of new laws directly intended to make it more difficult to vote. Voter ID laws, which require certain forms of government-issued photo ID in order to vote, were passed in Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Mississippi via citizen referendum. They have certainly been the most prominent and powerful disenfranchising tool, but are by no means the only one. Seven states — Florida, Georgia, Maine, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin — shortened their early voting periods, three states — Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee — implemented new requirements that individuals present proof of citizenship in order to register, two states — Florida and Texas — placed major new restrictions on voter registration groups, and one state — Maine — tried to strip residents of their right to register on Election Day before being rebuked by a citizens veto. This year, the battle over whether all Americans will have equal and unobstructed access to the ballot box rages on.
NEW PROPOSALS: Voter ID laws already have the potential to disenfranchise more than three million people in the eight states that had laws in place in 2011. Unfortunately, it could soon take hold in other states as well. Already this year, Pennsylvania became the second-largest state to pass a strict voter ID law when Gov. Tom Corbett (R) signed the legislation last week. As many as 700,000 Pennsylvanians currently lack photo ID, particularly people of color and senior citizens. Voter ID legislation is advancing in other states as well. In Missouri, GOP legislators are trying to push through a voter ID measure, even though Gov. Jay Nixon (D) already vetoed a similar bill last year. Now, Republicans hold a near veto-proof majority, so the bill may become law after all. Similarly, despite Gov. Mark Dayton’s (D) veto last year, Republican lawmakers in Minnesota are on the cusp of putting voter ID on the November ballot. And even though Dayton and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (D) have put forth a third way on voter ID that would allay concerns about fraud without disenfranchising voters, Republicans appear uninterested in the compromise. Progressives have not been defeated everywhere, however. Despite Republicans controlling the Maine legislature and governor’s office, a citizen backlash successfully spooked the legislature into dropping a proposed voter ID bill earlier this year. Beyond voter ID, both Michigan and South Carolina are currently considering anti-registration bills similar to the Florida law that drove the League of Women Voters out of the Sunshine State. In addition, Kansas is considering legislation to expedite implementation of their onerous proof-of-citizenship law in time for the 2012 election. Taken together, these changes could particularly harm young voters, people of color, poorer folks and those in live in rural areas.
THE DOJ TAKES ACTION: With Republicans firmly in control of the majority of governorships and state legislatures, progressives in many states have few options to fight back. One all-important arrow left in the quiver, however, is the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Under this law, nine states with a history of discrimination — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas — as well as a number of counties and jurisdictions in other states, must get approval from the Department of Justice before changes to state election laws can go into effect. Section 5 of the VRA puts the burden of proof on the states to show that new laws (like voter ID) won’t have a discriminatory effect against minorities, whether intended or not. In August 2011, the DOJ determined that South Carolina had not met this burden with its new voter ID law because it would disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans. Similarly, the DOJ blocked Texas’ voter ID law this month after the state failed to show that it would not have a discriminatory effect on Latinos. New voter ID laws already passed in Alabama and Mississippi will also need to be approved by the DOJ before they can take effect. Though some states like Pennsylvania fall outside the purview of the Voting Rights Act, “the Justice Department has said it is reviewing voter ID laws in other states not covered by Section 5,” though it has not specified which, according to the Huffington Post. State judges are taking action to protect voters as well. Already, two Wisconsin judges have struck down that state’s voter ID law for violating the state constitution.
FACES OF DISENFRANCHISEMENT: More than five million Americans could be disenfranchised because of restrictive election laws from 2011 alone. Here are a few of them:
– Dorothy Cooper, a 96 year-old African-American woman from Tennessee, was denied a voter ID last year because she didn’t have a copy of her marriage license. She said the episode was worse than anything she’d ever experienced during the Jim Crow era.
– Ricky Tyrone Lewis, a 58 year-old Marine Corps veteran, was denied a voter ID card in Wisconsin when officials decided that documents of his honorable discharge from the Marines were insufficient to prove his identity.
– Thelma Mitchell, a 93 year-old Tennessee woman, spent decades cleaning the Tennessee state capitol building. After her state passed a voter ID law last year and she tried to obtain one, Mitchell, who was delivered by a midwife in 1918, was turned away because she didn’t have a birth certificate.
– Paul Carroll, an 86 year-old World War II veteran , was not allowed to cast a vote in Ohio’s recent GOP presidential primary because his photo ID from the Department of Veterans Affairs did not include his address. He has lived in Aurora, Ohio for four decades.
– Virginia Lasater, a 91 year-old Tennessee woman, attempted to get a voter ID recently. However, because of her old age and physical constraints, she was unable to stand in the hours-long line she found at the DMV. With no place to sit while she waited in line, she was forced to give up her hopes of getting a voter ID.
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