By Sarah Hackley
Last year, amidst crushing budget shortfalls and mounting deficits, state legislatures across the country spent their time on the issues Republicans said really matter: “personhood” for zygotes, the repeal of Obama’s healthcare plan, and the disenfranchisement of liberal voters. Judging by the nearly 130 voting-related bills introduced in 2011, this last “issue” was, perhaps, the most important one of all. This was true even in states, such as Texas, which are already controlled by Republican leaders.
A new Texas photo ID law that could go into effect this month, for example, makes it okay for eligible voters to use their current concealed handgun license to vote but not their student IDs. Considering that the University of Texas at Austin accepted over 2,500 out-of-state applicants for the Summer/Fall 2011 semesters, the new law has the potential to affect tens of thousands of Texas college students – many of whom do not possess Texas-issued IDs and the vast majority of whom typically vote Democratic.
Despite this glaring reality, state legislators, like Texas State Senator Fraser, claim the new law (S.B. 14) was passed to keep elections fair and legal, and to prevent voter fraud.
“Photo ID is simply putting into practice the intent of the current law – that the person who shows up at the polls is who he or she claims to be,” Sen. Fraser said. “Voter impersonation is a serious crime, but without a photo ID requirement we can never have confidence in our system of voting.”
Texas Lt. Gov. Dewhurst has also publically supported S.B. 14 on the basis of its “fairness” and ability to prevent fraud.
“Texas has taken a stand for free and fair elections by making Voter ID the law of the land,” Lt. Gov. Dewhurst said. “We have a responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution, as well as the laws of our state and nation, and I’m proud to stand with Gov. Perry, members of the Texas Legislature and my fellow Texans to uphold the sanctity of our most fundamental democratic principle: one person, one vote.”
Conservative cries of voter fraud, however, are patently false. A recent student voter fraud study by the Maine Secretary of State’s office (conducted because of GOP allegations of student fraud) revealed zero incidences of student fraud. Studies by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice also indicated that there is “no credible evidence [to] suggest a voter fraud epidemic.”
“There is no documented wave or trend of individuals voting multiple times, voting as someone else, or voting despite knowing that they are ineligible,” wrote the Center. “Indeed, evidence from the microscopically scrutinized 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington State actually reveals just the opposite: though voter fraud does happen, it happens approximately 0.0009% of the time. The similarly closely-analyzed 2004 election in Ohio revealed a voter fraud rate of 0.00004%. National Weather Service datashows that Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often.”
Facts like these don’t seem to matter to Republican lawmakers or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, however, who has insisted that the new photo ID law takes “a major step forward in securing the integrity of the ballot box and protecting the most cherished right we enjoy as citizens.”
While the rhetoric may have changed, the pursuit to suppress the votes of the disenfranchised is nothing new. Southern states, in particular, often try to pass legislation that prevents minority citizens from voting – a fact the federal government knows all too well. In 1965, the federal Voting Rights Act was passed to ensure such laws weren’t implemented without federal oversight. Under Section 5 of the Act, states – including South Carolina and Texas – that have a history of passing restrictive voting laws are required to gain federal approval before the laws can be implemented.
Texas’ new photo ID law is currently awaiting federal approval under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. A very similar South Carolina photo ID law was just rejected by the Attorney General’s office for its potential to marginalize non-white voters, approximately 82,000 of whom don’t possess an ID that would be accepted under the new law. In its decision, the Attorney General’s office also said that South Carolina had failed to prove the new restrictive law was necessary to prevent voter fraud:
“The state’s submission did not include any evidence or instance of either in-person voter impersonation or any type of fraud that is not already addressed by the state’s existing voter identification requirement and that arguably could be deterred by requiring voters to present only photo identification at the polls,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez
Considering that both Texas’ and South Carolina’s laws were passed by Republican lawmakers on the basis of voter fraud prevention, and that both laws would disenfranchise a large number of the states’ eligible voters if implemented, it seems likely the Department of Justice may reject the Texas law as well.
Unfortunately, Texas wasn’t alone in passing restrictive voting laws this year. Six other states, including two states (Kansas and Tennessee) that aren’t subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, passed new photo ID laws that require millions of voters to possess government-issued photo IDs that up to 11 percent of the states’ voting population doesn’t have. Similar bills have been introduced in 27 other states.
In Ohio, a key battleground state since the 1960s, Organizers for President Obama and the Democratic Party managed to stop new Republican-sponsored laws that would have restricted voting access.
Among other things, the proposed changes would have shortened the early voting period, which Republicans claimed was too costly, too long, and somehow “suppress[ed] Republican votes.” In reality, early voting, and expanded voting opportunities in general, leads to elections in which Democrats win, not because they are suppressing Republican votes but because they are making the process work for society’s often marginalized groups. Ohio voters saw the restrictive voting measures for what they were, and rejected them. Such voter-run initiatives to halt Republican efforts, however, won’t work in every state, particularly in states like Texas where Democrats have little to no legislative power.
In addition to S.B. 14, Texas lawmakers passed legislation (H.B. 1570) that makes it extremely difficult to hold voter registration drives. Current law allows anyone registered as a “deputy registrar” to register others to vote, which is how voter registration drivers are held. The new law requires a “deputy registrar” to complete a state-approved training program (which may include an “exam”) prior to assisting others with their registration or receiving a voter registration application from another person. The law requires training standards to be adopted this month. Another new law (H.B. 2194) further stipulates that only Texas residents who are eligible to vote can be deputy registrars.
None of the Texas lawmakers who support the new laws have provided reasonable explanations for why residency or voting eligibility should be required in order to assist another person with voter registration. Reasonable explanations also are lacking for why a training program or “exam” is needed to accept a piece of paper from a willing applicant.
Despite the lack of explanation, the reasons behind the new laws are easy to comprehend when considered in light of the 2008 election. Between five and ten percent of the Texans who registered to vote in the 2008 election registered through voter registration drives. Many of these registrants were young, poor, and/or part of a minority group – all categories which are more likely to vote Democratic. In fact, each of Texas’ new voting laws, like those passed in other states this year, will act to restrict voting access for the very people who voted to elect President Obama in the 2008 election. Hopefully, the Department of Justice will see beyond the Republican talking points and reject all of the new laws on the basis that they are solely tools for discrimination.
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