Though right-wing efforts to suppress low-income and minority voting are nothing new, the current GOP campaign is unprecedented in scope, organization and ambition.
There is a coordinated, nationwide effort right now to enact voter ID laws that do nothing to impact alleged voter fraud and instead disenfranchise voters and infringe upon the fundamental American right to free and fair elections… which is, of course, precisely what the proposed laws are intended to do.
Photo ID laws have been introduced or passed in at least 15 states. They discriminate against those who don’t have driver’s licenses — disproportionately the poor, elderly and minorities. Nationally they could disenfranchise about five million voters. Several states are also pushing legislation to restrict voter registration and to limit early voting.
A quick check of the facts vis-à-vis voter fraud: The Bush Justice Department conducted a massive, five-year investigation into voter fraud that resulted in a mere 86 convictions nationwide. An independent investigation into voter fraud in Missouri in 2000 determined that the rate of voter fraud in that state was 0.0003%. A similar study in Ohio in 2004 turned up a percentage of 0.0004%, while another study in Wisconsin the same year measured the proportion of fraudulent votes at 0.0002%.
Notably, in virtually every case the “fraudulent” votes involved either in- and out-of-state double voting or votes cast by ineligible voters, chiefly ex-felons, problems that would not be addressed by photo ID. None were cases of actual fraud via voter impersonation.
Based on these studies, and expecting about 125 million votes to be cast nationwide in this year’s general election, we can anticipate the number of ineligible or fraudulent votes to be cast in 2012 at between 250 and 500. We like to say that every vote counts, but, really, five to ten votes, on average, in each of 50 states are hardly likely to make a difference in this, or any, election’s outcome. Voter fraud is just not a very real threat to American democracy.
However, the costs of implementing these new laws are very real. States must undertake massive public information campaigns, retrain poll workers, account for longer lines on Election Day, and produce and distribute millions of free IDs to citizens. This has the potential to increase electoral costs in some states by as much as 50 percent — tens of millions of dollars.
Most recently, Indiana’s strict voter ID law cost taxpayers more than $10 million in the issuing of new IDs. Estimates by other states projected additional implementation costs of up to $25 million in North Carolina over three years, $17 million in Missouri over three years. Is this really the wisest use of taxpayer money in these tight times?
Of course, the real intent of voter ID laws is not to prevent fraud but to disenfranchise millions of otherwise eligible voters. Studies have shown that about 21 million Americans, or 11% of eligible voters, currently lack a valid photo ID. However, those percentages rise to as high as 25% for African-Americans, 15% for low-income voters, 18% for seniors and 20% for voters under 30. Do you detect a pattern here? These demographic groups are predominantly Democratic base voters. The other pattern at play: all of the new or proposed voter ID laws and other legal obstacles to voting are being put into place by Republican legislatures. Though right-wing efforts to suppress low-income and minority voting are nothing new, the current GOP campaign is unprecedented in scope, organization and ambition.
Not all these measures will likely survive court challenges. The 14th and 15th amendments to the U. S. Constitution and the 1965 Voting Rights Act bar discrimination and other interference with voting in all elections. In addition, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires preclearance for nondiscrimination by either the Justice Department or a federal court before states can change any voting procedures. This is what led the Texas Justice Department to recently put a hold on Texas’ discriminatory new voter ID law and a Wisconsin judge to strike down a similar law in that state. “Voter fraud is no more poisonous to our democracy than voter suppression”, wrote Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess in his decision; “A government that undermines the very foundation of its existence — the people’s inherent, pre-constitutional right to vote — imperils its legitimacy as a government by the people, for the people, and especially of the people.”
What we ought to be doing in this country is rethinking our voting laws with regard to how to ensure that every citizen can cast his or her vote with fewer obstacles, not more. Registration drives, extended voting hours, modern balloting technologies — Americans should be having a national conversation on how to encourage and increase voting, not on how to suppress it.