By Erin Ferns
Recent studies show that a more diverse electorate turned out last November, including historically underrepresented young and minority voters. Since the election, Republican operatives have continued to use the specter of voter fraud to loosen regulations on voter suppression activities while pushing policies to make voting more difficult for the crop of new voters.
Last week we reported how the Republican National Committee (RNC) had quietly filed a motion to dissolve a consent decree prohibiting them from practicing voter caging and other voter suppression activities. The decree had been established in the 1980s after so-called “ballot security programs” to prevent voter fraud resulted in wrongful voter disenfranchisement of largely low-income and minority voters.
“The RNC claims that the lack of evidence of voter fraud is due to liberal voting laws that make fraud hard to detect,” said Project Vote election counsel, Teresa James in last week's column. “Yet legislatures in the past decade have pushed through the most restrictive voting codes we've seen since the Jim Crow era. Complicated voter ID rules, barriers to voter registration, and arbitrary rules on verifying provisional or absentee ballots all disenfranchise qualified voters, especially minority voters. Despite this frenzy of allegedly anti-fraud legislation, this political party wants carte blanche to also use questionable tactics that suppress targeted voters, all in the name of mythical voter fraud.”
Mythical voter fraud is currently being used in states with widely reported battles to pass strict voter identification requirements as their legislative sessions come down to the wire.
Last week, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan spoke in defense of the 230,000 eligible voters in the state who would be disenfranchised because they lack the necessary ID required under pending House Joint Resolution 9. The effort to pass a strict voter ID law continues despite a similar bill's failure to pass last year as well as a recent report by Carnahan's office that showed there were no instances of voter impersonation at the polls during the last three elections.
According to the Richmond Daily News, “the amendment would provide free government issued photo ID cards to voters” – a provision that other states with pending voter ID battles are considering. However, Carnahan's study points out that “documents needed to obtain the ID can be hard or expensive to obtain,” referring to a Jefferson City man who would be “a perfect example of someone who would be denied the right to vote.”
“I have my Illinois birth certificate, but I was turned away because it doesn't have a raised seal,” said 25-year-old citizen, Greg Butler. “I'm trying to get a new copy from Illinois, but the process is complicated. If this passed, I'm worried that I wouldn't be able to vote in Missouri.”
“It's my job to protect the rights of all Missouri voters,” said Carnahan. “This proposal would make it difficult or impossible for thousands of eligible Missourians to cast a ballot. I hope our legislators will take a closer look at this list and see that there are people in communities all over the state who risk being disenfranchised by this proposal.”
According to Carnahan's April 2009 report on the 2008 election, election administration problems dealing with long lines, overzealous poll workers who wrongfully asked for photo ID, and confused voters who were unaware that they needed to re-register every time they change residence in order to be eligible to vote were the real issues in the election, not polling place fraud. In fact, only one St. Louis voter illegally cast an absentee ballot for his recently deceased mother, a case that was not only caught by authorities, but would also have not been prevented under a photo ID provision since it was a mail ballot.
“This single instance showed that the security checks in place are effective at keeping Missouri elections fair and free of fraud,” Carnahan reported.
A voter ID bill in Texas will likely reach the House floor if a “compromise” to allow voters to show two forms of non-photo ID is included among other provisions, over the objections of House Representatives who prefer a stricter photo ID requirement, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Earlier this year, the much publicized voter ID debate “conjured up the civil rights struggles of the 1960s” as Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Fort Worth)” said “proposals for tighter ID measures are the modern equivalent of the Jim Crow laws that were used to suppress minority turnout for decades,” according to the Associated Press in April.
“This is a racial issue, make no mistake about it,” said Veasey. “Can you really sleep with yourself at night knowing that if this bill is passed, that most of the people that would be denied the right to vote are going to be black, brown and poor?”
Rep. Todd Smith's so-called compromise bill attempts to “mitigate the potential for disenfranchisement,” a “natural” outcome of voter ID, according to Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), the Morning News reported. The compromise, “designed to draw support across party lines,” includes provisions for increased funding for voter registration efforts in the state as well as “free identification for people who need it to vote.”
Unlike Missouri and Texas where high profile battles to pass strict photo ID laws have occurred in recent years, the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee shocked voters and advocates by supporting photo ID legislation 11-2 last week. According to the Providence Journal, “it was believed to be the first time that any Rhode Island legislative committee has approved such a requirement.”
The bill, HB 5097 requires all voters to present a document that shows the voter's name and photograph. A state voter ID would be issued upon request “at locations and in accordance with procedures established by rules and regulations promulgated by the secretary of state,” according to the bill's text.
A statement issued by the ACLU and a coalition of organizations deemed the bill more harmful than helpful. “Rather than putting hurdles in the way of voters, lawmakers should be working to lower barriers to voter participation,” according to the Providence Journal. “Should the bill become law, it would `lead to the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters in Rhode Island, and particularly racial minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities.'”
To monitor voter ID and other election bills, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.