Today, we are witnessing the greatest assault on democracy in over a century.
Through a spate of state laws that restrict the type of identification a voter may use, limit early voting, place strict requirements on voter registration, and deny voting rights to Americans with criminal records, many voters will be cast out of the democratic process before they even make it to the polls. Those who do make it will face additional challenges. To complement legislative efforts to suppress the vote, the Tea Party and its allies have vowed to place millions of challengers at polls in 2012 to dispute voters' eligibility in ways that may intimidate eligible voters and disrupt polling place operations. This two-prong strategy will impede American voters at every step of the voting process.
Not since the days of poll taxes and literacy tests has our country seen such blatant attempts to suppress the vote. Model legislative proposals crafted and strategically disseminated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative legislative advocacy group that receives funding from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation prompted some 34 states to introduce repressive photo identification legislation this year. While the bills vary slightly from state to state, they share one common thread. All of them require that voters must show non-expired, photo ID issued by that particular state or the federal government in order to cast a ballot. And all of them do so under the guise of preventing rampant voter fraud.
But these pervasive photo ID restrictions are really solutions in search of a problem. Academic studies show that claims of voter impersonation -- the only voting irregularity that could be addressed by a state photo ID requirement -- are unsubstantiated. In fact, most instances of improper voting involve registration and eligibility issues, none of which would be prevented by a state photo ID restriction.
An extensive analysis of data from all fifty states by the U.S. Justice Department, however, found that incidents of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. In fact, you are far more likely to experience an earthquake in Washington DC or be killed by lighting than to see a prosecutable case of voter fraud. The closely-analyzed 2004 election in Ohio, for example, revealed a voter fraud rate of 0.00004 percent, meaning that for every 100,000 voters only four were found to have cast a suspicious vote. And let's face it -- there are no incidents of "Mickey Mouse" ever voting. Photo ID restrictions would prevent less than one fraudulent vote for every 1,000 legitimate voters who would be excluded from voting due to the state photo ID requirement.
This new barrier to voting does not impact Americans equally. People of color, young voters, low-income voters and seniors will be most obstructed from accessing the ballot. Despite the oft-repeated presumption that everyone has ID, statistics show it is simply not true. In South Carolina, 178,000 already registered voters lack a driver's license or state identification. Twenty-three percent of people in Wisconsin age 65 and over, and half of African Americans and Latinos in the state, lack the requisite ID. In Texas, Wisconsin, and South Carolina, voters will not be able to use college identification. Each of these groups saw a jump in participation in 2008 but they are now at risk of being silenced under the pretense of voter fraud.
There has been success, however, in beating these attacks on democracy back. A diligent effort by progressive forces compelled governors to veto Photo ID laws in Montana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and New Hampshire. Civil rights groups are urging the Department of Justice to deny approval of Photo ID laws passed in South Carolina and Texas under the Voting Rights Act. A lawsuit by Advancement Project and its partners challenges a proposed photo ID constitutional amendment in Missouri.
While we have won several battles, we are far from winning the war. In states like Wisconsin, Kansas, and Tennessee, where these laws have passed, implementation will soon be underway. And, there is nothing to stop states that did not pass the proposals in 2011 from reintroducing them in 2012.
Our legacy of voting in this country is not a proud one, and while the last century has seen a push towards expansion of the franchise, these new laws stand to turn back the clock. History tells us the dangers of this trend. The post reconstruction era saw the advent of Jim Crow laws which caused dramatic reductions in voting rights for previously eligible voters. Between 1890 and 1910, African Americans were removed from the voter registration rolls in large numbers and denied the right to vote. This systematic disenfranchisement lasted for decades until the first series of civil rights laws, starting with the Civil Rights Act of 1957, began to dismantle this structure. While there are many laws and safeguards in place to likely prevent that level of large-scale disenfranchisement, these new laws stand to relegate millions of eligible voters to second class citizenship.
Aristotle is quoted as saying "If liberty and equality... are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost."
America's new repressive voting laws undermine the very fabric of our democracy and we cannot rest until all Americans are given back their voice.