Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Want to Vote? Better Check if U Can

Republican-sponsored bills eroding voter rights are now law in thirty-two states. These laws could have a chilling effect this November – which is exactly why they were passed. Just as Jim Crow politicians used poll taxes and literacy tests to keep Southern blacks from voting, current GOP governors and state legislators have drafted laws to prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots – people most likely to be concerned about GOP attacks on social policies and individual rights who usually vote as Democrats.

Republicans dispute these laws represent a political agenda but the facts prove otherwise. The far right has been talking about curbing voter rights since at least 1980 when the influential conservative activist, Paul Weyrick told a gathering of evangelical leaders he didn’t want everybody to vote. Weyrick said “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." And that’s exactly true.

Efforts to suppress voters’ rights kicked into high gear after the 2010 midterm elections when the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded in part by the Koch Family Foundation, began to steamroll legislation specifically designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process in at least 38 states. Judith Browne-Dianis is the co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington that monitors attacks on voters’ rights. She calls these laws the “most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century." 

Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Five states, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia, shortened their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. Six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures (Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin) require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. Maine tried, but fortunately failed, to repeal Election Day voter registration. These laws have been sprouting all over the nation. It certainly cannot be merely coincidental.

Republicans insist they’re waging war against an epidemic of voter fraud, an irony lost on no one who still remembers how they seized control of the White House in 2000 despite having lost the popular vote. After taking power, the Bush administration declared war on voter fraud, making it a "top priority" for federal prosecutors. In 2006, the Justice Department fired two U.S. attorneys for refusing to pursue trumped-up cases of fraud in New Mexico and Washington. Karl Rove called illegal voting "an enormous and growing problem” and told the Republican National Lawyers Association that parts of the country "are beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are colonels in mirrored sunglasses." It was utter nonsense; classic far wing hyperbolic dishonesty.

The truth is something vastly different: a major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop. Out of 300 million votes cast in that period, only 86 people were convicted of other forms of voter fraud. That’s right: 86 out of 300 million. So it’s no wonder that the prestigious Brennan Center for Justice, a leading advocate for voting rights at the New York University School of Law, offered an excellent reality check in this sea of insanity when it announced that a voter is more likely to be hit by lightning than impersonate another voter in order to commit election fraud.

Nothing about these laws makes any sense until you begin to put all the pieces together. Also watch how aggressively Republicans work to discredit any effort at pushback; that’s when they bring out the long knives, whether Rush or the commentator whose snide article ridiculing Attorney General Eric Holder’s efforts to protect voters’ rights was published in this paper last week. It was a classic propaganda piece using flawed history, clever sarcasm, and the usual false equivalencies to unrelated over-generalized facts that people already show photo IDs to cash checks, enter secure areas, and maybe buy beer -- clever but specious arguments because none of those activities are Constitutional rights nor applied equally around the country. Remember also that those particular ID requirements guard against legitimate harms: financial crimes, safety, and underage drinking. Voter suppression laws are necessary only if there’s an equally compelling need to protect the nation from the harm of voter fraud -- but there is not.

The laws themselves are the danger.

Or put another way: there’s about as much voter fraud as there were weapons of mass destruction.

This article was originally published 3/21/12 in my weekly column in the Journal Tribune. Here's the link:

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