Washington – An attack on the right to vote is under way across the country through laws designed to make it more difficult to cast a ballot. If this were happening in an emerging democracy, we'd condemn it as election-rigging. But it's happening here, so there's barely a whimper.
The laws are being passed in the name of preventing “voter fraud.” But study after study has shown that fraud by voters is not a major problem — and is less of a problem than how hard many states make it for people to vote in the first place. Some of the new laws, such as limiting the number of days for early voting, have little plausible connection to battling fraud.
These statutes are not neutral. Their greatest impact will be to reduce turnout among African-Americans, Latinos and the young. It is no accident that these groups were key to Barack Obama's victory in 2008 — or that the laws in question are being enacted in states where Republicans control state governments.
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Again, think of what this would look like to a dispassionate observer. A party wins an election, as the GOP did in 2010. Then it changes the election laws in ways that benefit itself. In a democracy, the electorate is supposed to pick the politicians. With these laws, politicians are shaping their electorates.
Paradoxically, the rank partisanship of these measures is discouraging the media from reporting plainly on what's going on. Voter suppression so clearly benefits the Republicans that the media typically report this through a partisan lens, knowing that accounts making clear whom these laws disenfranchise would be labeled as biased by the right. But the media should not fear telling the truth or standing up for the rights of the poor or the young.
The laws in question include requiring voter identification cards at the polls, limiting the time of early voting, ending same-day registration, and making it difficult for groups to register new voters.
Sometimes the partisan motivation is so clear that if Stephen Colbert reported on what's transpiring, his audience would assume he was making it up. In Texas, for example, the law allows concealed handgun licenses to work as identification, but not student IDs. And guess what? Nationwide exit polls show that John McCain carried households in which someone owned a gun by 25 percentage points but lost voters in households without a gun by 32 points.
Besides Texas, states that enacted voter ID laws this year include Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Tennessee. Indiana and Georgia already had such requirements. The Maine Legislature voted to end same-day voter registration. Florida seems determined to go back to the chaos of the 2000 election. It shortened the early voting period, effectively ended the ability of registered voters to change their address at the polls, and imposed onerous restrictions on organized voter-registration drives.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court, by 6-3, upheld Indiana's voter ID statute. So seeking judicial relief may be difficult. Nonetheless, the Justice Department should vigorously challenge these laws, particularly in states covered by the Voting Rights Act. And the court should be asked to review the issue again in light of new evidence that these laws have a real impact in restricting the rights of particular voter groups.
“This requirement is just a poll tax by another name,” declared state Sen. Wendy Davis when Texas was debating its ID law earlier this year. In the bad old days, poll taxes, now outlawed by the 24th Amendment, were used to keep African-Americans from voting. Even if the Supreme Court didn't see things her way, Davis is right. This is the civil rights issue of our moment.
In part because of a surge of voters who had not cast ballots before, the United States elected its first African-American president in 2008. Are we now going to witness a subtle return of Jim Crow voting laws?
Whether or not these laws can be rolled back, their existence should unleash a great civic campaign akin to the voter registration drives of the civil rights years. The poor, the young and people of color should get their IDs, flock to the polls and insist on their right to vote in 2012.
If voter suppression is to occur, let it happen for all to see. The whole world, which watched us with admiration and respect in 2008, will be watching again.