Kobach might be the gop's most outspoken crusader working to prevent citizens from voting, but he's far from the only one. "Voting rights are under attack in America," Rep. John Lewis, who was brutally beaten in Alabama while marching during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, observed during an impassioned speech on the House floor in July. "There's a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process."
The Republican effort, coordinated and funded at the national level, has focused on disenfranchising voters in four key areas:
Barriers to Registration Since January, six states have introduced legislation to impose new restrictions on voter registration drives run by groups like Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters. In May, the GOP-controlled legislature in Florida passed a law requiring anyone who signs up new voters to hand in registration forms to the state board of elections within 48 hours of collecting them, and to comply with a barrage of onerous, bureaucratic requirements. Those found to have submitted late forms would face a $1,000 fine, as well as possible felony prosecution.
As a result, the law threatens to turn civic-minded volunteers into inadvertent criminals. Denouncing the legislation as "good old-fashioned voter suppression," the League of Women Voters announced that it was ending its registration efforts in Florida, where it has been signing up new voters for the past 70 years. Rock the Vote, which helped 2.5 million voters to register in 2008, could soon follow suit. "We're hoping not to shut down," says Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, "but I can't say with any certainty that we'll be able to continue the work we're doing."
The registration law took effect one day after it passed, under an emergency statute designed for "an immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare." In reality, though, there's no evidence that registering fake voters is a significant problem in the state. Over the past three years, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has received just 31 cases of suspected voter fraud, resulting in only three arrests statewide. "No one could give me an example of all this fraud they speak about," said Mike Fasano, a Republican state senator who bucked his party and voted against the registration law. What's more, the law serves no useful purpose: Under the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress in 2002, all new voters must show identity before registering to vote.
Cuts to Early Voting After the recount debacle in Florida in 2000, allowing voters to cast their ballots early emerged as a popular bipartisan reform. Early voting not only meant shorter lines on Election Day, it has helped boost turnout in a number of states – the true measure of a successful democracy. "I think it's great," Jeb Bush said in 2004. "It's another reform we added that has helped provide access to the polls and provide a convenience. And we're going to have a high voter turnout here, and I think that's wonderful."
But Republican support for early voting vanished after Obama utilized it as a key part of his strategy in 2008. Nearly 30 percent of the electorate voted early that year, and they favored Obama over McCain by 10 points. The strategy proved especially effective in Florida, where blacks outnumbered whites by two to one among early voters, and in Ohio, where Obama received fewer votes than McCain on Election Day but ended up winning by 263,000 ballots, thanks to his advantage among early voters in urban areas like Cleveland and Columbus.
That may explain why both Florida and Ohio – which now have conservative Republican governors – have dramatically curtailed early voting for 2012. Next year, early voting will be cut from 14 to eight days in Florida and from 35 to 11 days in Ohio, with limited hours on weekends. In addition, both states banned voting on the Sunday before the election – a day when black churches historically mobilize their constituents. Once again, there appears to be nothing to justify the changes other than pure politics. "There is no evidence that any form of convenience voting has led to higher levels of fraud," reports the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College.
Photo IDs By far the biggest change in election rules for 2012 is the number of states requiring a government-issued photo ID, the most important tactic in the Republican war on voting. In April 2008, the Supreme Court upheld a photo-ID law in Indiana, even though state GOP officials couldn't provide a single instance of a voter committing the type of fraud the new ID law was supposed to stop. Emboldened by the ruling, Republicans launched a nationwide effort to implement similar barriers to voting in dozens of states.
The campaign was coordinated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which provided GOP legislators with draft legislation based on Indiana's ID requirement. In five states that passed such laws in the past year – Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – the measures were sponsored by legislators who are members of ALEC. "We're seeing the same legislation being proposed state by state by state," says Smith of Rock the Vote. "And they're not being shy in any of these places about clearly and blatantly targeting specific demographic groups, including students."
In Texas, under "emergency" legislation passed by the GOP-dominated legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry, a concealed-weapon permit is considered an acceptable ID but a student ID is not. Republicans in Wisconsin, meanwhile, mandated that students can only vote if their IDs include a current address, birth date, signature and two-year expiration date – requirements that no college or university ID in the state currently meets. As a result, 242,000 students in Wisconsin may lack the documentation required to vote next year. "It's like creating a second class of citizens in terms of who gets to vote," says Analiese Eicher, a Dane County board supervisor.
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