On March 7, 1963, civil rights activists were brutally beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, during the infamous "Bloody Sunday" march, for advocating for the right to vote. This week, forty-seven years later, today's civil rights leaders retraced the march from Selma to Montgomery, protesting what NAACP President Ben Jealous calls "the greatest attack on voting rights since segregation."
Since the 2010 election, Republicans have waged an unprecedented war on voting, with the unspoken but unmistakable goal of preventing millions of mostly Democratic voters, including students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly, from casting ballots in 2012. More than a dozen states, from Texas to Wisconsin and Florida, have passed laws designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process, whether by requiring birth certificates to register to vote, restricting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, requiring government-issued IDs to cast a ballot, or disenfranchising ex-felons.
Within days, the crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia will become the latest GOP states to pass legislation erecting new barriers to voting. If, as expected, the new laws lead to fewer Democrats casting ballots in November, both states could favor Republicans, possibly shifting the balance of power in Congress and denying Barack Obama a second term.
Pennsylvania will be the ninth GOP state since 2010 to require a photo ID in order to vote; the state's law mandates a government-issued ID or one from a college or nursing home. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 11 percent of U.S. citizens lack a government-issued ID, but the numbers are significantly higher among young voters (18 percent), voters 65 or older (18 percent) and African-Americans (25 percent). Based on these figures, as many as 700,000 Pennsylvanians may not be able to vote in the next election. (Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele claims 99 percent of Pennsylvanians possess the proper ID, which seems unlikely given the state’s large student, elderly and African-American population).
The Pennsylvania measures are strikingly similar to model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative advocacy group funded in part by the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers. In Pennsylvania, as in other states pushing voting restrictions, Republicans have hyped the bogeyman of "voter fraud" to promote the ID laws, even though, as the Associated Press noted, they were able to cite "no instances of voter fraud that the bill would somehow address." The law, the very type of big-government expansion that Republicans so often decry, will cost the state anywhere from $4.3 million to $11 million to implement.
The law is an unnecessary expenditure by the state and an unreasonable burden on voters. In order to obtain a free ID card to vote, voters must first obtain a Social Security card, birth certificate or certificate of residency, along with two proofs of residency, which costs money and amounts to a poll tax by another name. A voter who shows up to the polls without a valid ID can cast a provisional ballot, but that ballot will count only if the voter provides the requisite ID to the county board of elections within six days. "This is de facto disenfranchisement," says Andy Hoover, legislative director of the Pennsylvania ACLU. "The poll workers can avoid the discomfort of turning away a voter, but ultimately the chances that the vote will count are slim."
The Virginia legislature passed its own voting restrictions this week, which Gov. Bob McDonnell is expected to sign off on within thirty days. The state's voter ID bill is looser than Pennsylvania’s, allowing more types of acceptable ID in order to vote, including non-photo proof of ID, like a bank statement, utility bill or, this being the South, a handgun permit. But the law makes life much tougher for Virginians who show up without the requisite ID.
In the past, a Virginia voter lacking the proper ID could sign an affidavit attesting to their identity and then cast a regular ballot. Under the new law, that voter must cast a provisional ballot, which will count only if the voter then presents proof of ID to the board of elections within 24 hours. This change in the law could disenfranchise thousands of Virginia voters, says Tram Nguyen, associate director of Virginia New Majority, a progressive organizing group. "No one can point to any reason the [existing] system doesn’t work," says Nguyen. "There haven’t been any documented cases of voter fraud in Virginia." New trainings for election officials and an education campaign for voters will cost the cash-strapped state between $500,000 and $2 million, according to the Commonwealth Institute.
As more states pass voting restrictions, the pushback against the new laws is growing stronger. Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel in the democracy program at the Brennan Center, says "there’s a pretty high likelihood you’ll see litigation in Pennsylvania" challenging that state’s new law. A Wisconsin judge recently issued an injunction against a new voter ID law, among the toughest in the nation, until a trial next month decides whether the law violates the state constitution. "The new voter identification requirements," wrote circuit court Judge David Flanagan, "will likely exclude from the election process a significant portion of Wisconsin voters who are qualified under our constitution to participate in the process."
And in Florida, another critical swing state in 2012, the Department of Justice came out against the state’s severe restriction of voter registration drives and curtailment of early voting. "The United States' position is that the State has not met its burden, on behalf of its covered counties, that the two sets of proposed voting changes are entitled to preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act," DOJ wrote in a court filing. Minority voters were twice as likely as white voters to register to vote through voter registration drives and to use early voting in 2008. The League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote, and Florida PIRG filed a lawsuit challenging the election changes, which should be decided in the coming weeks.
Stephen Colbert recently devoted a segment of his show to the story of a Florida high school teacher who was fined $1,000 for "voter registration fraud" after failing to turn in student voter registration forms within the state's new 48-hour deadline. It was part of his satirical series, "People who are destroying America." Thanks to the GOP’s war on voting, performing your civic duty can now put you on the wrong side of the law.
Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, now out in paperback with a new afterword.
• The GOP War on Voting