What's the Deal With All These Voting Restrictions?

Though it is the crown jewel of our charming little American democracy, the right to vote hasn’t ever been a thing of glittering beauty. At its best, voting is the stuff of fluorescent-lit hallways at local middle school schools and the withering glares of geriatric poll workers. At its worst, it’s the stuff of racist poll taxes, land owner-only discrimination, and good old-fashioned sexism.

Most of us have, understandably, gotten so caught up with the myriad problems facing our nation—a money-oozing general election campaign, rampant cannibalism, and the heartbreaking realization that we just might not be able to keep up with the Kardashians—that recent kerfuffles over voter ID laws and cries of disenfranchisement might have slipped under our radar, awash in that pre-7 a.m. white noise on NPR. Even if you’re lucid and caffeinated, it can be difficult to keep up with all the moving parts of voter ID legislation, court decisions, and good ‘ole fashioned Sunday morning verbal brawling. Lucky for you, we’ve been keeping tabs on the finicky beast that is American democracy and all her voting travails.

We’ll start with the basics.

What are the requirements to vote in most states?

In the majority of states in the Union, all that is required to vote are eighteen years spent on Planet Earth, the ability to punch holes in a ballot (we’re looking at you Florida), and some form of identification—not necessarily with a photo on it. For instance, under Ohio law, a voter may present anything from a state driver’s license to a utility bill, as long as the ID shows the voter’s name and current address. As it stands now, there are 19 states like Ohio that allow non-photo forms of identification at the polling place, while 20 states don’t require you to show physical ID at all, including that electoral map behemoth, California. In lieu of ID in the Sunshine State, voters can just provide an identification number upon registering to vote, typically a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a social security number. If they don’t have either, the state will assign the voter an ID number to provide at the polling place.

What states have voter ID laws?

There are 11 states that require photo ID under current law, but more are making moves to change their rules, and this ain’t just the stuff of cute electoral coincidence—there’s an election in the fall, and as any good Machiavellian state legislator knows, all’s fair in love, war, and representative democracy.

Ostensibly, photo ID laws are being put in place to stamp out what one might think was an epidemic of virulent voter fraud, led by portly, cigar-chomping Chicago pols, but in fact, voter fraud is about as common as being struck by lightning.  Seriously.

But what’s the big deal about requiring photo ID?

While many Americans might take for granted the ability to whip out a driver’s license (being carded past a certain age is one of life’s little joys, isn’t it?), there are a significant number of voters who just don’t have photo ID—about 21 million Americans, or 11 percent of the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. Documents needed to get state ID cards, like official birth certificates, can be expensive and inconvenient to procure for a lot of voters. Most of these people happen to be black or Hispanic, groups that tend to lean left politically, and Republicans have seized upon this dynamic in the hopes of effecting structural change in the electorate.

Since 2011, 34 states have introduced legislation to require photo ID laws. With one exception, the bills were introduced by Republican-controlled legislatures.  Seven states signed photo ID voting restrictions into law—Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Twelve states introduced proof of citizenship legislation.

Is anybody doing anything about it?

Yes—not everyone in the country is sitting in front of their TV throwing Cheetos at Dancing with the Stars contestants. In recent months, the Justice Department has been getting aggressive in going after states passing restrictive voter ID laws. In March, the DOJ blocked a law in Texas, citing problems of inequity relating to Hispanic voters and their ability to obtain driver’s licenses in all counties; in December of 2011, the Department similarly blocked a South Carolina photo ID law.

Wait, how can the Department of Justice just go around blocking state laws?

This takes us back to the aforementioned, “racism.” When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, Congress was pretty sure that certain states weren’t going to take kindly to the new rules. Under Section Five of the law, the Department of Justice retains the right to review election laws in nine specified states—most of them in the South—and can block laws if they “deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”

What’s the deal with all those election law rumblings lately out of Florida?

Last week, the Department of Justice sent a letter (the thinking man’s bullet) to Florida’s Secretary of State, asking that the state—with Republican Governor Rick Scott at its helm—stop a ‘non-citizen’ purge of voter rolls, citing possible violations of Section Five of the Civil Rights Act. Thus far, only Broward and Miami-Dade have stopped the so-called ‘scrubbing’ of voter records.

The same day, a ruling on a lawsuit brought by The League of Women Voters of Florida came down from a federal judge, ordering a preliminary injunction on the portion of a broader state election law from 2011 that would require voter advocacy groups to submit information gathered from voter registration drives within a 48 hour period. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle called the measures, “harsh and impractical,” and pointed out that groups shouldn’t be discouraged from promoting civic awareness.

Can we expect more legal action from the Federal Government?

You bet your sweet bippy you can; if Attorney General Eric Holder’s January speech professing singular enthusiasm for enforcing the Section Five voting rights rules is any indication, one can imagine that there is more to come from the Obama administration in the way of paper grenades to state boards of election.

No one ever said rocking the vote was going to be easy.

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