"I voted" picture: (Flickr/ Vox Efx) Liberty Bell photograph: (Flickr/dcwriterdawn)
We get it. Real-life court dramas are not as exciting as Judge Judy (and definitely not as exciting as Judge Joe Brown). So we totally don't judge you for not knowing why the hell Pennsylvania's voter-ID law is suddenly in court.
Of course, you thought you'd covered your bases when you read our early explanation of voter-ID laws. (If you didn't, well, you only need to be a little embarrassed.) You know there's basically no evidence of in-person voter fraud where one person impersonates another—the only type of fraud voter ID guards against. You know that the big fights were in Texas and South Carolina. So why is everyone so worked up about some court case in Harrisburg?
Well let us be quick and leave you plenty of time for Court TV.
So a bunch of states have voter-ID laws—what's the big deal about Pennsylvania?
Well, not shockingly in a presidential election year, a lot of it boils down to politics. Pennsylvania is a swing state in a close election, so every vote each side can pull counts big. Most people believe voter-ID laws help Republicans win elections, because poor and nonwhite voters tend to vote Democratic and also tend to be the populations less likely to have the necessary ID. In case there was any doubt about those intentions, the state House majority leader told an audience that passing voter ID was "going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." (He evidently didn't get the whole memo about pretending we need this to combat nonexistent voter fraud.)
Yesterday, Eric Holder opened a new front in his fight to preserve voting rights, as the Department of Justice announced that it would launch an investigation into Pennsylvania's voter ID law. The attorney general has been an outspoken critic of the strict new laws that require voters to show government-issued photo identification, calling them the equivalent of a modern-day "poll tax." The DOJ has blocked implementation of voter ID in Texas and South Carolina—states that, because of their histories of voter suppression, are listed in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and therefore must get preclearance from the DOJ before they can change their election laws.
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.
In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, just outside Nashville, the Muslim community won a hard-fought victory Wednesday. After a two-year legal battle that inflamed anti-Islamic sentiment across the state, a federal judge ruled that a new Islamic community center could get the permits necessary to open. Elsewhere in the state, however, Muslim residents got a cold reminder this week of just how much prejudice exists around them.
Texas Governor Rick Perry is famous for delivering negative ads that send his opponents' campaigns reeling; they tend to contain such wild, over-the-top accusations that responding to them is tricky business. In the 2002 gubernatorial race, when he was fending off Democratic billionaire Tony Sanchez, the governor pulled out a last-minute ad that basically accused the candidate of laundering money for drug cartels.
Before Mitt Romney's Bain Capital problems seized everyone's attention, we were hearing about a different political minefield the candidate had to maneuver: While his campaign is based largely on the country's economic woes, several GOP governors in swing states were claiming economic success and recovery. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker spent his recall campaign pointing to the state's recovery, while Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell launched his own ads showing his state's progress.
It wasn't supposed to work this way. Much as Mitt Romney was supposed to cruise into the GOP presidential nomination, Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst was supposed to have an easy path to the U.S. Senate. Dewhurst, after all, has a been a loyal soldier to Governor Rick Perry for the better part of nine years. He's toed the party line, pushing the state Senate chamber into ever more conservative territory, and he had a limitless campaign fund from his own personal wealth. Now, state insiders assumed, was his time to move up the ladder.
We've heard a lot about jobs in this presidential election cycle. The idea being, I suppose, that once people have a job, regardless of the wages or the hours, they can bootstrap their way to the top. Probably for similar reasons, we don't hear much about poverty. So long as there are jobs around, political rhetoric seems to say, being poor is a choice. While both campaigns will spend many many millions on ads telling you about jobs, I doubt we'll hear much about economic mobility in America or pathways to escaping poverty.
In the latest version of SimCity, a computer game that let's you pretend to be an urban planner, city residents are born into an economic class and there they remain for life. This may have been done for simplicity's sake, but the scenario makes the popular computer game disturbingly similar to the situation of most Americans.
Texas doesn't have an air-tight case when it comes to the stringent voter-ID law that's currently having its week in court. Even Fox commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano said he expects the state to lose. And according to Politico, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has promised to show not only that the voter-ID law will have a discriminatory effect but that such an effect was intentional.
With a tangle of lawsuits and legal complexities, it's easy to get lost in the minutiae of Florida's voter-purge debacle. Last week, as a U.S. District Court ruled on one of the disputes between the Department of Justice and the state of Florida, most of the media discussion focused on who'd won and who'd lost in the rather nuanced court opinion. More legal action comes next week, and the discussion will likely be similar.
The debate around voter ID laws is generally one about protection versus disenfranchisement. Advocates of the laws, which require photo identification to vote, often say the law won't have an impact anyone who's voting legally. In Pennsylvania, the Secretary of the Commonwealth assured lawmakers that 99 percent of voters in the state had the necessary identification, and promised that "No one entitled to vote will be denied that right by this bill." Her views were echoed by Republican lawmakers throughout the state who pushed for the measure. You need a photo ID for everything these days, the logic seemed to go, so why not voting too? After all, who doesn't have a photo ID?
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.