REPORT: In 22 Statehouses Across The Country, Conservatives Move To Disenfranchise Voters

In statehouses across the country, Republican lawmakers are raising the specter of “voter fraud” to push through legislation that would dramatically restrict the voting rights of college students, rural voters, senior citizens, the disabled and the homeless. As part of their larger effort to silence Main Street, conservatives are pushing through new photo identification laws that would exclude millions from voting, depress Hispanic voter turnout by as much as 10 percent, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. In the next few months, a new set of election laws could make going to the polls and registering to vote significantly more difficult — in some cases even barring groups of citizens from voting in the communities where they live.

Conservative legislators across the country have said these laws are necessary to combat alleged mass voter fraud. But these fears are completely overblown and states already have tough voting laws on the books: fraudulent voters face felony charges, hefty fines, and even lengthy prison time. In Missouri, for example, voter fraud carries a penalty of no less than 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Yet conservatives have insisted on finding a legislative solution to a non-existent problem. In states like Indiana, where an ID law passed in 2005, both nuns and college students have found themselves turned away from the polls. Similar laws are on the books in eight other states and that number could expand dramatically in coming months. ThinkProgress examined these efforts in eight states:

NEW HAMPSHIRE: In the most egregious example of voter disenfranchisement legislation in the country, state Rep. Gregory Sorg (R) has introduced a bill that would bar thousands of college students and service members from voting in the communities where they live and attend school. According to New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien (R) the legislation is nececessary because there “are kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience.” A diverse coalition of young veterans, libertarians, conservatives, and progressives have organized against the bill. Both state politicians and local law professors have said the law is unconstitutional, citing “Newberger v. Peterson — a 1972 federal district court decision that ruled the state cannot bar college students from voting in New Hampshire even if they intend to leave after graduation.” Sorg told a public hearing that he had not read the decision and did not “care” for it.

MINNESOTA: Republican representatives have introduced two separate bills in the statehouse that would require voters to present photo identification at the polls. The more expansive of the bills would end same-day voter registration and create a large electronic database which would scan voter’s IDs. Conservatives have said the bill is necessary to end alleged voter fraud in the state, claims that the Minnesota County Attorneys Association have called “frivolous.” Other groups, including the ACLU and Common Cause, have raised concerns about the bill’s constitutionality, feasibility, and cost. Gov. Mark Dayton (R) has indicated that he will not sign the legislation.


NORTH CAROLINA: Republican legislators have introduced a photo ID bill that the Institute for Southern Studies estimates will cost taxpayers more than $20 million. Once again, the legislation’s target is phantom “voter fraud” — even though in 2008 authorities reported only 40 voting irregularities out of 4.3 million votes cast. The real targets of the bill would be the state’s elderly, disabled and college-aged voters. One state senator has called the legislation a “slap in the face” to the more than 35 percent 35 percent of registered voters who live in isolated, rural counties.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Despite dying in the state senate last year, a bill requiring voters to present a photo ID has passed both legislative houses in contentious party-line votes. The two houses will now have to resolve their two different versions. One local NAACP official called the legislation “Jim Crow Jr.” and said the law was “during President Obama’s election, lots of blacks were out voting and doing absentee voting. (Republicans) don’t want the African-American vote to come out that strongly again.”

WISCONSIN: In the midst of Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) showdown with the Main Street Movement last week, Republicans rammed through a voter ID bill that critics have said shows “zero respect for Wisconsin voters.” Some analysts have said that the bill also shows little respect for the Constitution. Salon’s David Weigel wrote from Madison that “the legislation, as written, appeared to have constitutional problems that would shred it in court.”

TEXAS: Despite facing a $10–11 billion budget shortfall, Gov. Rick Perry prioritized a voter ID bill as an “emergency item” last month — forcing the Texas legislature to act on the bill before dealing with the state’s budget crisis. Since then the Senate has passed a voter ID law that would be the most restrictive in the nation and almost certainly depress turnout among low-income Texans. That shift could make all the difference in a state where in the past seven years, more than half a dozen state house races have been decided by less than fifty votes. The bill is now being considered by the Republican-controlled House and is widely expected to pass the lower chamber.

MISSOURI: In a party-line vote, state senators approved both a constitutional amendment and a bill requiring voter identification at the polls. Afterwards, one Democratic State Senator tweeted that the Senate had “just voted to disenfranchise at least 230,000 voters.” The measure is now headed to the Missouri House, where it has traditionally enjoyed strong support.

KANSAS: Monday the State Senate approved legislation, originally proposed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, that would require proof of citizenship upon registering to vote and photo identification at the polls. Democratic state senators have strongly objected to the proof of citizenship requirement, arguing that it is both unconstitutional and will depress voter registration. The bill now awaits action in the senate.

COLORADO: The House has passed a bill requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) has called the measure his top legislative priority.

TENNESSEE Two weeks a go, the State Senate passed a bill requiring voters to present a driver’s license before voting. The bill would create a significant burden to voting for the state’s more than 500,000 adults without a driver’s license. One Democratic state senator called the bill a “modern-day poll tax… for these poor people who have to travel to another county to pay a fee in order to have an ID that will let you vote.” The bill is widely expected to pass the Republican-controlled House.

IOWA A bi-partisan group of county election officials have risen in opposition to a proposed voter ID bill that passed the Republican-controlled House in late January. The group told reporters they had never encountered voter fraud duirng their service in the state. One Republican election chief even told the Des Moinse Register, “she worries the bill would discourage voting unless the state paid for a widespread public education campaign to ensure Iowans understood the new rules.” The bill now awaits action from the State Senate.

OTHER STATES The Montana House passed a voter ID bill last month and similar laws have been introduced in Connecticut, Maine, Alaska, Maryland, Virginia, New Mexico, Alaska, Illinois, Iowa, Montana and Nebraska. And in a number of states — including Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee — conservative lawmakers have introduced bills requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote.

Not only are many of these proposed laws too restrictive, they may also be unconstitutional. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes, legislators will have to fight an uphill battle to ensure their laws are held up in court and “in a difficult fiscal environment, citizens may reasonably question whether there are more pressing needs on which to spend their tax dollars than photo ID rules.” Yet conservatives have long shown little interest in the legality, fairness or cost of restricting voting. In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt told union members that “there are some political candidates who think that they may have a chance of election, if only the total vote is small enough.” Seven decades later it seems that this strategy is once again in vogue for American conservatives.

Kevin Donohoe