The barriers erected in Texas and Wisconsin go beyond what the Supreme Court upheld in Indiana, where 99 percent of state voters possess the requisite IDs and can turn to full-time DMVs in every county to obtain the proper documentation. By contrast, roughly half of all black and Hispanic residents in Wisconsin do not have a driver's license, and the state staffs barely half as many DMVs as Indiana – a quarter of which are open less than one day a month. To make matters worse, Gov. Scott Walker tried to shut down 16 more DMVs – many of them located in Democratic-leaning areas. In one case, Walker planned to close a DMV in Fort Atkinson, a liberal stronghold, while opening a new office 30 minutes away in the conservative district of Watertown.
Although new ID laws have been approved in seven states, the battle over such barriers to voting has been far more widespread. Since January, Democratic governors in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina have all vetoed ID laws. Voters in Mississippi and Missouri are slated to consider ballot initiatives requiring voter IDs, and legislation is currently pending in Pennsylvania.
One of the most restrictive laws requiring voter IDs was passed in South Carolina. To obtain the free state ID now required to vote, the 178,000 South Carolinians who currently lack one must pay for a passport or a birth certificate. "It's the stepsister of the poll tax," says Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project. Under the new law, many elderly black residents – who were born at home in the segregated South and never had a birth certificate – must now go to family court to prove their identity. Given that obtaining fake birth certificates is one of the country's biggest sources of fraud, the new law may actually prompt some voters to illegally procure a birth certificate in order to legally vote – all in the name of combating voter fraud.
For those voters who manage to get a legitimate birth certificate, obtaining a voter ID from the DMV is likely to be hellishly time-consuming. A reporter for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Tennessee – another state now mandating voter IDs – recently waited for four hours on a sweltering July day just to see a DMV clerk. The paper found that the longest lines occur in urban precincts, a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act, which bars states from erecting hurdles to voting in minority jurisdictions.
Disenfranchising Ex-Felons The most sweeping tactic in the GOP campaign against voting is simply to make it illegal for certain voters to cast ballots in any election. As the Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Crist restored the voting rights of 154,000 former prisoners who had been convicted of nonviolent crimes. But in March, after only 30 minutes of public debate, Gov. Rick Scott overturned his predecessor's decision, instantly disenfranchising 97,491 ex-felons and prohibiting another 1.1 million prisoners from being allowed to vote after serving their time.
"Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they've paid their price?" Bill Clinton asked during his speech in July. "Because most of them in Florida were African-Americans and Hispanics and would tend to vote for Democrats – that's why."
A similar reversal by a Republican governor recently took place in Iowa, where Gov. Terry Branstad overturned his predecessor's decision to restore voting rights to 100,000 ex-felons. The move threatens to return Iowa to the recent past, when more than five percent of all residents were denied the right to vote – including a third of the state's black residents. In addition, Florida and Iowa join Kentucky and Virginia as the only states that require all former felons to apply for the right to vote after finishing their prison sentences.
In response to the GOP campaign, voting-rights advocates are scrambling to blunt the impact of the new barriers to voting. The ACLU and other groups are challenging the new laws in court, and congressional Democrats have asked the Justice Department to use its authority to block or modify any of the measures that discriminate against minority voters. "The Justice Department should be much more aggressive in areas covered by the Voting Rights Act," says Rep. Lewis.
But beyond waging battles at the state and federal level, voting-rights advocates must figure out how to reframe the broader debate. The real problem in American elections is not the myth of voter fraud, but how few people actually participate. Even in 2008, which saw the highest voter turnout in four decades, fewer than two-thirds of eligible voters went to the polls. And according to a study by MIT, 9 million voters were denied an opportunity to cast ballots that year because of problems with their voter registration (13 percent), long lines at the polls (11 percent), uncertainty about the location of their polling place (nine percent) or lack of proper ID (seven percent).
Come Election Day 2012, such problems will only be exacerbated by the flood of new laws implemented by Republicans. Instead of a single fiasco in Florida, experts warn, there could be chaos in a dozen states as voters find themselves barred from the polls. "Our democracy is supposed to be a government by, of and for the people," says Browne-Dianis. "It doesn't matter how much money you have, what race you are or where you live in the country – we all get to have the same amount of power by going into the voting booth on Election Day. But those who passed these laws believe that only some people should participate. The restrictions undermine democracy by cutting off the voices of the people."
This story is from the September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.
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