Congressional Democrats Seek to Curb Tough State Voter-Screening Laws

Washington – Democrats on Thursday ratcheted up efforts to combat new voting laws adopted by 13 states that Democrats contend are deliberate efforts to keep its core voting blocs from casting ballots next year.

“Election legislation and administration appear to be increasingly the product of partisan plays,” says a letter to election officials in all 50 states signed by 196 Democrats in the House of Representatives. “Election officials are seen as partisan combatants, rather than stewards of democracy. … We are asking you, as front line participants, to put partisan considerations aside and serve as advocates for enfranchisement.”

Thirteen states last year approved changes to their election laws and another 24 states are weighing measures that proponents say are needed to protect against voter fraud and to prevent illegal immigrants from casting ballots.

Members of the House Democratic leadership, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus unveiled the letter they're sending to election officials urging them to oppose new voting measures that a recent study said would adversely impact the ability of more than 5 million people to register or vote.

Supporters of the measures disagree, saying tougher voting laws are needed to protect against rampant voter fraud and to ensure that illegal immigrants aren't casting ballots.

Some of the changes require voters to show government-approved identification cards and to restrict voter registration drives by third-party groups.

Two states with Republican governors, Florida and Wisconsin, reversed executive orders that allowed felons who served their time to vote.

The argument for more stringent voting safeguards, however, has not been borne out by studies. For example, a five-year investigation by President George W. Bush's Justice Department found no evidence of any organized voter fraud efforts.

Opponents of the new laws say the identification requirements could prove to be the most problematic. A study by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice found that more than 21 million Americans don't have government-issued photo identification.

NAACP officials added that some 25 percent of African-Americans nationwide don't have the proper documentation to meet the ID requirements in some states.

The Brennan Center for Justice said the new laws could “sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election” by restricting voting access to 5 million people.

Most of the potentially disenfranchised belong to the Democratic Party's core constituencies — minority, elderly, young and low-income voters.

States that have adopted new voting regulations account for 171 electoral votes in 2012 — or 63 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, according to the Brennan Center report.

“We are witnessing a concerted effort by Republican lawmakers across several states to place new obstacles in front of minorities, low-income families and young people who seek to exercise” their right to vote, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Thursday. “Across the country, states are trying to make it harder to vote by making identification requirements stricter and reducing early voting. There have also been efforts to deter voter registration.”

But Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said the new laws are needed to protect the integrity of the vote. He cited the controversy over the now-defunct Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, or ACORN, as an example.

Republican and conservative activists accused the liberal-leaning group of running fraudulent voter registration drives in poor neighborhoods.

“How much more widespread would you have to be than operations going on in nearly all, if not all, of the 50 states — major cities — and millions of dollars spent to pay people to go out and fraudulently register voters,” King said in a speech Tuesday on the House floor. “So for the gentleman to say — and I quote — there is no evidence of any widespread voter fraud, I think there is massive evidence of widespread voter registration fraud, and from that flowed fraudulent votes as well.”

But a December 2009 report by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service debunks King's claim. The report by the arm of the Library of Congress found no evidence of fraudulent voting or violations of federal election financing over a five-year period by the group.

During the Bush administration, political appointees in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division aggressively pursued positions on voting rights laws that critics also charged were designed to aid Republican candidates by curbing the turnout of Democratic-leaning minority and poor voters.

The effort intensified as Bush's popularity waned and the GOP risked losing control of Congress in 2006, which it did. At the time, McClatchy reported that Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, alluded to the strategy in April 2006 when he discussed voter fraud in a speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association, highlighting the importance of about a dozen election battleground states.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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