In the current issue of Rolling Stone, I examine how Republican officials in a dozen states have passed new laws this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process. It's a widespread, deliberate effort that could prevent millions of mostly Democratic voters, including students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly, from casting ballots in 2012. Congress is, belatedly, starting to pay attention, and yesterday afternoon Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, held a hearing on "New State Voting Laws: Barriers to the Ballot?"
“I am deeply concerned by this coordinated, well-funded effort to pass laws that could have the impact of suppressing votes in some states,” said Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate.
"Rather than protecting right to vote," said Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a witness at the hearing, "we’re seeing a brazen attempt around the country to undermine it." He pointed to legislation that would make it more difficult for citizens to register to vote or for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters, cut back on early voting, require government-issued IDs that specifically target young and minority voters, and disenfranchise ex-felons.
Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that preserving access to the ballot box remained “one of the most significant civil rights issues of this moment,” and noted that the new GOP laws had “not so ironically arrived in time for the 2012 election.”
Republicans used a curious logic to justify their party’s new campaign. South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, the ranking Republican on the committee, invoked the 9/11 attacks to rationalize requiring government-issued photo IDs, which are the most important weapon in the GOP war on voting. "All of the hijackers, five or six, had fake drivers licenses," Graham said. Left unsaid was why a terrorist would want to vote in an American election.
As usual, Republicans cited fears of widespread voter fraud as the key reason for the new laws, even though study after study has shown that in-person voter impersonation is practically non-existent in the U.S. GOP Rep. Todd Rokita, who drafted Indiana’s 2005 photo ID law while secretary of state, claimed that "there’s a lot of evidence" of voter fraud, but that prosecutors have decided not to investigate the alleged cases (which begs the question, why not?).
Hans von Spakovsky, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who led the Bush Administration’s crusade against voter fraud while serving in the Justice Department, told the committee that the "evidence is indisputable that aliens are registering and voting." However, the evidence he provided – that illegal immigrants have been called to jury duty, failed to confirm his assertion, since jury duty lists are drawn not only from voter rolls, but also from driver's license records and other state lists.
Justin Levitt, a constitutional law professor at Loyola University, deftly summarized the GOP’s efforts to suppress the Democratic vote under the guise of voter fraud. “We’ve amputated a foot to cure a potential hangnail,” he said.
Under questioning from Durbin, von Spakovsky did admit that the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative advocacy group funded in part by the Koch brothers, was a major player behind the new photo ID laws. “Senator, they have a lot of model bills they recommend to their legislators,” von Spakovsky said.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Durbin responded.
Democrats conceded that unless the courts or the Justice Department stepped in soon, the GOP would be able to successfully engineer a favorable electorate well in advance of the 2012 election. "We’re encouraging democracy in Iraq," said Cleaver. "Let’s demand it at home."
Republicans, for their part, are acting like this is a fight they’ve already won. “This is the future of the country,” Graham said of the new ID laws. “You will see more of this, Mr. Chairman, not less.”
That’s a scary proposition, indeed.