In June, five Supreme Court Justices rolled back the Voting Rights Act, widely considered as the most effective tool in preventing discrimination in our nation's history. Section 5 of the act required that certain states and localities "preclear" proposed election changes with federal officials to ensure the changes were not discriminatory. The Court ruled that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions needed to get preclearance was outdated and unconstitutional. For those of us who care about voting rights, the question now is how do we respond?
North Carolinians wait to vote in 2008 (Flickr/James Willamor)
North Carolina recently passed what can only be described as an omnibus voter suppression law, including a whole range of provisions from demanding photo IDs to cutting back early voting to restricting registration drives, every single one of which is likely to make it harder for minorities, poor people, and/or young people to register and vote. It's not just the Tar Heel state—across the South, states that have been freed by the Supreme Court from their prior obligation under the Voting Rights Act to get permission from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws are moving with all deliberate speed to make voting as difficult as possible. Since these are Republican states, these laws are going to pass (some have already), and I think it's worth addressing what is fast becoming the main argument Republicans use to defend them.
They've always said that their only intent was to ensure the "integrity" of elections and protect against voter impersonation, a virtually non-existent problem. But they recently realized that they've got a new, and seemingly compelling, piece of evidence they can muster against charges of voter suppression. Many voter ID laws were passed over the last few years (the Supreme Court upheld voter ID in 2008), and as Republicans will tell you (see for example here or here), turnout among blacks hasn't declined, and in some cases has actually gone up. Blacks even turned out at a slightly higher rate than whites overall in the 2012 election. As Rand Paul recently said, "I don't think there is objective evidence that we're precluding African-Americans from voting any longer."
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the voting bill currently hurtling through the North Carolina legislature. What the Republican-dominated body calls a “Voter Protection” bill has a laundry list of provisions, almost all of which make voting harder for the general population and disproportionately hard for voters of color, young voters, or low-income people. “The types of provisions are not unheard of,” says Denise Lieberman, senior council for the voting rights advocacy group the Advancement Project. “What’s unheard of is doing all them all at once.” Lieberman calls the measure “the most broad-sweeping assault on voting rights in the country.” She’s not exaggerating.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy
In the United States, voting rights don’t march forward as much as they ebb and flow. Often, it happens like this: The prospect of short-term political gain leads one of the two parties to make a massive push for democratic participation, which is then counted by the other side, which has an equally large interest in maintaining a smaller electorate of particular people.
The Pew Research Center has done its full analysis of the Census Bureau’s report on the diversifying American electorate, and it confirms the big takeaway from the 2012 elections—Republicans are in trouble with minority voters.
Mitt Romney won just 17 percent of nonwhite voters in the 2012 election. That includes African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and all other groups that fall under the umbrella of “nonwhite.”
For the first time ever, people around the country who love American democracy have decided to come together to observe a National Voter Registration Day on September 25, 2012—a day to pull out all the stops in making sure that every eligible voter is registered and able to vote in this critical election year. Hundreds of non-partisan organizations have agreed to reach out to help hundreds of thousands of people get registered to vote so that they can fulfill their civic duty as citizens and make their voices heard in November.
The researchers conducted an experiment on every American Facebook user who was 18 or older during the 2010 congressional elections—more than 61 million people. Most people in the group saw a message at the top of their News Feed that
“It’s not the voting that’s democracy; it’s the counting.” —Tom Stoppard, Jumpers
Voting rights are in the news again, and they’re back as a national issue. In Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and several other states, the coming election showdown on November 6 has been shadowed by a rising concern among Democrats over voter-ID requirements, restrictions on vote canvassing, and changes to early voting. How many of those worrying this year know that it was a series of late-19th-century political battles that helped decide how we cast and count our ballots? Or that this strange, only dimly remembered history leads straight to the mess we’re in today?
If Americans don't believe that elections are conducted fairly, or believe that the person who takes office didn't actually win, the implications for the country are pretty scary. But according to one recent survey, distrust in election outcomes is startlingly widespread—and growing.
Ten states have recently passed laws requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification before they can vote. Ostensibly, these laws are to prevent voter fraud. However, a study by nonpartisan university researchers at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice has shown that voter fraud is microscopic (e.g., 0.00004% of the votes in the 2004 Ohio election were fraudulent); the penalty for getting caught is so large (5 years in prison), and the effect of one vote so small, that nobody risks it. The very occasional fraudulent vote is invariably from an ex-felon or green-card holder who mistakenly thought he had the right to vote.
There's little question what the political calculus behind voter-ID laws is. Advocates argue that the laws, which require government photo identification to vote, are necessary to prevent voter fraud—despite there being virtually no evidence that such fraud is a problem. In practice, the laws will disproportionately have an impact on poor people and those of color, two Democratic-leaning groups that are less likely to have such IDs. Predictably, Republicans have been pushing for these laws, while Democrats generally oppose them.
As the nation waited for the Wisconsin recall results to come in, Twitter began to light up with conservative claims of voter fraud. "Please @ me with any stories of #WI #WIrecall voter fraud," tweeted conservative radio host and pundit Dana Loesch around 11 a.m. She noted stories on busing voters in across state lines and on supposedly suspicious high turn-out rates. "It's not 'fraud' if you didn't cheat enough to rob voters of the lawmakers they choose," she wrote.
Americans who care about the right to vote are faced with an ugly reality as the 2012 elections come into view: no matter how many courts rule that voter identification laws will disenfranchise eligible citizens and no matter how many states U.S.
At TheWashington Post, Chris Cillizza suggests that, like the Republican Party, President Obama might have a turnout problem in the fall:
A review of the states that have also held Democratic contests this year shows turnout is down sharply from the last time a Democratic president was running largely unopposed for renomination — 1996.
Democratic turnout is down significantly in five of eight states that held similar contests in 1996 and 2012 (and where data are available), and six of eight overall, compared to Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.