Suppression of Voting Rights: A Threat to Democracy
Since a surge of voter participation in the 2008 elections, we have seen a disturbing nationwide trend of legislation that undermines voting rights and makes it harder, not easier, to vote.
These developments take a variety of forms: from Voter ID or proof-of-citizenship requirements, to challenges to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2011, dozens of state legislatures introduced laws to impose voter ID or proof-of-citizenship requirements. Several other states pushed bills to hinder or eliminate laws that make it easier to vote, such as early voting or election-day registration. Other states have placed restrictions on third party groups that conduct voter registration drives, and even challenged sections of the Voting Rights Act that require Justice Department approval of Voter ID requirements.
Taken together, these changes have the effect of making it harder for people to participate in the democratic process. Most affected by these changes are the poor, minorities, students, young people and the elderly. In a country where we have worked tirelessly to allow all groups the opportunity to vote, it seems as if we are suddenly moving backwards.
Voter ID Laws
Voter ID laws are sweeping the country, bringing controversy wherever they go. Although presented as a means of preventing voter fraud, requiring voters to present ID is discriminatory and serves to suppress turnout of the most vulnerable voters. Indeed, the Justice Department has gotten involved in more than one state, including striking down South Carolina’s efforts to mandate IDs and evaluating Texas’ scheme. It is important for voters to understand what voter ID laws are, who they target and how they impact the voting in a presidential election year.
The 2000 election revealed striking dysfunction with the American electoral system and led to outcries of fraud. In response, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) which requires voters who have not voted in a federal election before and registered by mail to present identification. While HAVA used a broad definition of identification (either a current and valid photo identification or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter), subsequent laws passed have strengthened requirements significantly. The Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling on case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board decided that photo IDs were not an undue burden on voters, leading to a number of states strengthening existing laws.
Currently, 31 states have some sort of voter ID law. The National Conference of State Legislatures classifies these laws as non-photo, photo and strict photo ID. Non-photo ID laws require some form of ID to vote, such as those required by HAVA to register. Photo ID laws require some form of photo ID, although in certain circumstances – if the voter is vouched for or has a birth certificate, for example – the voter is still allowed to cast a ballot. Strict photo ID laws require all voters to show photo ID. Those that do not have and ID may cast a provisional ballot that will only be certified if the voter returns with a photo ID at a later date.
Voter ID requirements are sometimes accompanied by proof-of-citizenship requirements, potentially disenfranchising even more eligible voters. Such laws have only been passed in Arizona, Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee, although Arizona’s is currently locked in court. Proof of citizenship is particularly onerous to those with minimal means, as 7 percent of citizens have no ready access to documents proving it, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Advocates of voter ID laws argue that they are necessary to prevent further instances of fraud, yet there is scant evidence of widespread fraud. While Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has won convictions in 50 cases of voter fraud in the past eight years, studies show that these and similar instances across the country are more often than not clerical errors or a problem with voting lists.
A poll by Pew Center on the States found that one in eight voter registration records in the United States are incorrect. Yet even though these flawed records lead to voting mistakes, it does not mean that people are purposely exploiting this fact and casting fraudulent votes.
Opponents of these laws have said that voter ID laws are discriminatory towards seniors and Democratic-leaning constituencies – students, the poor, and minorities – and that they are a method of voter suppression. In total, about 11 percent of eligible Americans (21 million) do not have state-issued photo IDs, including 15 percent of low-income voters, 18 percent of young eligible voters, 18 percent of seniors and 25 percent of African-Americans, according to a recent story in the Nation. Thirteen million adults do not have access to proof of citizenship, which will hinder their efforts to obtain a photo ID.
Furthermore, after women marry, only 48 percent have a birth certificate with their current legal name, as opposed to their maiden name. All of this makes the voting process extremely complicated for many voters.
Although obtaining the necessary ID is free, there are still significant time and monetary constraints. For those without access to a car but living in car-dependent suburbs, travel to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) by bus can take a very long time, assuming public transit serves the DMV’s location, and a wait in line at the office could take another hour or more. The documents required to obtain an ID, such as a birth certificate, cost money and require an address. Only Kansas provides birth certificates free of charge for use in obtaining a photo ID for voting. In other states, the requirement to purchase a birth certificate constitutes an indirect poll tax.
Minorities are less likely to have access to a photo ID than white voters. Twenty five percent of African Americans do not have an accepted form of identification, as opposed to 11 percent of the population as a whole.
Some of the state laws will inflict harsh fines on organizations that run voter registration drives if they do not submit their results within 48 hours or if there are mistakes in the registration papers. This will be harmful to minorities, since Hispanic and African American voters are twice as likely as white voter to register through voter drives. For example, in Florida, one of the states that attempted to pass these restrictions, 62.7 percent of all new voters were registered through voter drives.
Furthermore, higher rates of African Americans vote on the last Sunday before Election Day than any other group, so if laws ban this early voting, they will be unevenly affected.
According to Elizabeth McNamara, President of the League of Women Voters, women may be disproportionately affected by restrictive new voter identification laws: “Women in general and elderly women in particular are being disproportionately harmed by the new laws. In some instances citizens who have been voting for decades are being required to obtain birth certificates (which some elderly people do not have since they were born at home) and their wedding certificates in order to prove who they are. In some states they are faced with a catch 22 – you must have a photo ID in order to obtain a birth certificate and you can’t get a birth certificate without a photo ID. In most cases there are costs associated with getting a birth certificate and marriage license. This becomes more complicated if you were born or married in a state in which you are not currently living. Birth certificates cost between $7 and $30 dollars, depending on the state, and can take up to eight weeks to obtain.” (Learn more from Ms. McNamara’s remarks at: lwv.org.)
Students, too, have trouble with the requirements. There are efforts to remove university IDs from the list of acceptable identification, which will hurt students who do not have other forms of photo identification, such as driver’s licenses, reported a recent Washington Post article.
In Texas, student IDs are similarly banned from use while other IDs, such as concealed gun licenses, are permissible, because, according to Texas State Representative and voter ID sponsor Patricia Harless, “Everybody has almost got a concealed handgun license over 21.”
Current and Proposed Laws
The most recent legislative session saw a record 34 state legislatures propose photo ID laws, and seven states, Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, passed such laws. Five more states, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina, passed but vetoed photo ID laws. Jenny Bowser, senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, observed, “It’s remarkable … I very rarely see one single issue come up in so many state legislatures in a single session.”
In 2011, eight states enacted voter ID laws, including Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. This year, at least 16 more state legislatures are considering photo ID bills, and more are expected to emerge as the 2012 legislative session progresses. States with current or proposed Voter ID laws or voter restrictions include Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Accompanying voter ID laws have also been laws which put limits on early and mail-in voting, popular among the working poor who cannot vote on a traditional Tuesday. Hispanics similarly are more likely than whites to vote on a Sunday. While African-Americans made up just 22.7 percent and Hispanics made up 11.6 percent of early voters in Florida in 2008, they constituted 33.2 percent and 23.6 percent, respectively, of early voters on the last Sunday before Election Day. Florida has banned voting on the last Sunday of Election Day and Ohio has banned the practice entirely.
Florida has also begun a contentious process to remove ineligible voters from their registration lists. It is a controversial issue since it is within 90 days of a federal election and people most likely will not have a chance to appeal if they feel they were wrongly taken off the rolls. The Department of Justice sued to stop the process, but Judge Robert Hinkle recently decided that Florida can go ahead with the purge. The Department of Justice has not decided if it will appeal the ruling.
Pushback Against Voter ID Law
Due to their history of discrimination against voters of color, South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas were not allowed to implement their new laws until they were reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice, as required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Both South Carolina’s and Texas’s voter ID bills were rejected for potentially having the impact of disproportionately forcing minority voters to obtain the required ID to continue to exercise their right to vote. The Justice Department is expected to make a decision about Mississippi’s law soon.
The ACLU and NCAA are suing the Pennsylvanian government over their Voter ID law on behalf of 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite and ten other individuals. Ms Applewhite says she is proud of her citizenship and right to vote – she marched with Martin Luther King. But although she has voted since 1960, she will most likely not be able to vote in the upcoming November elections. She never learned to drive and all other forms of ID were lost when her purse was stolen. She has been trying to obtain a copy of her birth certificate, but to no avail. She feels like the Voter ID law brings the state back to the days before the civil rights movement. You can watch her story at thinkprogress.org.
Many of the plaintiffs in this case do not have a birth certificate, since they grew up in the Jim Crow South or rural areas there is no record of their birth. Without a birth certificate, it will be extremely difficult to secure the necessary photo ID and these people will be prevented from voting.
Make Sure You Can Still Vote!
See if your state has made any changes (such as ID requirements) that could interfere with your plans to vote and adjust your plans accordingly. Remind your family members and friends to vote and inform them of any such changes.
- Follow this voting checklist: theleague.com/election-info/voting-checklist.
- Visit GottaVote.org and ElectionLand.com and click on your state for information about voting polls, registration deadlines by party, what to bring to the polls and access to a forum to post and view questions and answers regarding voting.
- Find out if you’re registered to vote. Visit CanIVote.org.
- Dorothy Cooper has only missed one election in the past 70 years. See why your vote is so important. Watch her story at blog.gottavote.org.
Act to defend the right to vote and mobilize voters!
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is one of the leading groups for voter registration in this country. Their goal is to advocate for voting rights and increase the young electorate (18-29) turnout by registering 300,000 new voters across the country. Their field campaign units will be aided by educational materials, technical assistance, training, online voter registration, new media tools and more.
- “Rock the Vote” is a leading project dedicated to increasing voting participation by young people. Since its founding 21 years ago, Rock the Vote has registered more than 5 million young people to vote, and serves as a trusted source of information for young people about how to register to vote and cast a ballot. Their online center “ElectionLand” serves as a state by state guide for important information about voting.
- Advancement Project is an “action tank” that “advances universal opportunity and a just democracy for those left behind in America.” They work to remove barriers to voting in low-income and minority communities.
- The American Association of University Women’s Action Fund will host a series of non-partisan trainings to train and motivate volunteers who will collaborate on a voter education and turnout campaign targeting women in their state. This effort is part of a non-partisan, nationwide campaign in which the AAUW Action Fund will be investing more than $1 million. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Brennan Center for Justice is a non-partisan public policy and law institute that works on voting rights, campaign finance reform, racial justice in criminal law, and more.
- The League of Women Voters was formed from the movement that secured the right to vote for women. The League of Women Voters is dedicated to expanding democratic participation and giving a voice to all Americans. They have chapters across the country, and are one of the leading organizations in helping to register and educate voters.
Read ¶5072 Encouragement to Vote in Elections (p. 700), ¶164 The Political Community: B)Political Responsibility (p. 635-6), of the 2008 Book of Resolutions for guidance and Calls to Action on elections and politics.
Brennan Center for Justice, NYU: www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf
The Nation, “The War on Women Voting”: www.thenation.com/blog/167369/war-women-voting
Fox News, “Judge Refuses to Block Florida Voter Purge”: www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/06/27/judge-refuses-to-block-florida-voter-purge/
League of Women Voters statement by Elisabeth MacNamara: www.lwv.org/content/statement-elisabeth-macnamara-president-lwvus-forum-entitled-excluded-democracy-impact
Philly.Com, “City woman is lead plaintiff against Pa. voter ID: articles.philly.com/2012-05-03/news/31539365_1_voter-id-bill-carol-aichele-pennsylvania-elections
USA Today “More States Require ID to Vote”: www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2011-06-19-states-require-voter-ID_n.htm
The Washington Post, "In States, Parties Clash over Voting Laws That Would Affect College Students, Others." 8 Mar. 2011. Web. 22 June 2012: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/06/AR2011030602662.html?hpid=topnews&sid=ST2011031002881