Voter suppression continues
A Different Drum
“I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” — Paul Weyrich, Republican strategist, 1980.
Now that President Obama has been re-elected, it would be easy to think that the voter suppression efforts we’ve seen over the past several months are not something to worry about. After all, they didn’t work, right?
That would be a mistake.
Turnout rates in the US are nearly the lowest among developed countries. There are many reasons for that: Our strange electoral college, single-member voting districts and the feeling among many votes don’t matter. But, voter suppression is one factor.
Polls show that if all eligible voters actually went to the polls, the entire political system would move significantly to the left.
Attempts to suppress votes dates back to the reconstruction era. In an attempt to prevent newly eligible former slaves from voting, a number of measures were put into place. Poll taxes prevented those who couldn’t afford to pay from casting ballots.
Felons were disenfranchised from voting and still are permanently disenfranchised in a number of states. It was pretty easy to implement policies that made sure more blacks would be convicted of felonies than whites. At first, you just needed vagrancy laws; later, the drug war would suffice, especially with disproportionate sentencing laws.
Literacy tests were one of the biggest tools. It wasn’t just that blacks were more likely to be illiterate — it was often illegal to teach slaves to read — literacy tests were implemented specifically to prevent black voting. The test for a potential white voter might be to name the first president. Blacks would then be asked to read an interpret, to the registrar’s satisfaction, a long and complex section of the US Constitution.
Fast forward to 2012, and the big issue is voter identification laws. Completely nonexistent until 2006, these laws have a certain logical appeal. We have to show ID for such a variety of functions, why not voting?
But, hard as it is to believe, a substantial portion of eligible citizens lack the necessary identification. According to at least one study, 11 percent of eligible citizens of voting age did not have ID. These folks tend to be disproportionately older, poor, minority or live in urban or extremely rural areas. Some have great difficulty getting the necessary ID because the records needed are unavailable.
Voter identification laws are attempting to solve a nonexistent problem. In-person voter fraud is extremely rare. Only a handful of cases can be cited and most of those are simple registration errors, not actual attempts at fraud. If you wanted to fraudulently influence an election, impersonating another voter would be an incredibly inefficient way of doing so.
Many reduce the issue to racism, citing our country’s long history of disenfranchisement of African-Americans. But, I suspect that the bigger issue is partisan, rather than racial. Republicans are targeting groups that vote disproportionately Democratic.
The smoking gun was made evident in a speech by Pennsylvania Republican leader Mike Turzai, when he bragged, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”
Examples abound. Absentee ballot fraud is far more prevalent than voter impersonation, but hasn’t been an issue because many Republicans like to vote absentee.
Other examples include how narrowly some of the voter suppression laws have been written to target Democratic-leaning groups. Organizations that have tried to increase voter registration have had to abandon their efforts in some states because new laws restricted their efforts to the point of inviability.
In a number of states, early voting was cut back. In Florida, they were careful to eliminate the Sunday before the election, when many black churches organize trips to the polls. In Ohio, early voting was reduced for everyone but members of the military. No money was saved because the polls were open, but only for the one group Republicans thought would vote for them.
A Texas law allowed gun licenses to be used as identification, but not student IDs. Some states allowed student IDs, but only from their own states, effectively disenfranchising college students from other states.
These efforts aren’t just by politicians. In Ohio and Wisconsin, a secretive group put up billboards across minority neighborhoods warning against voter fraud and threatening prison time.
Many of the new laws were held back by the courts because the states could not provide the IDs in time for the election.
Perhaps more importantly, many of the court stays are temporary. These laws may well be in place for future elections.
Whether these or some other laws, we can be certain that attempts at voter suppression will continue. Our democracy requires vigilance.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.