It does seem a bit ridiculous, doesn't it? That we still have to fight for voting rights, fight against laws that seek to suppress the vote, laws that will have a disproportionate impact on those Americans who -- had they been of voting age before 1965 -- would likely have been barred because of their race? Ridiculous is one word for it. Infuriating is another. These tactics violate everything for which our country is supposed to stand. As President Obama put it, "The idea that you'd purposely try to prevent people from voting? un-American."
Republican-dominated states from Arkansas to North Carolina, from Texas to Ohio to Wisconsin, have implemented various restrictions on voting that have been wending their way through the courts this fall. Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed North Carolina's law to stand -- one that might well be the nation's most awful, although the court did, thankfully, put a temporary hold on Wisconsin's law -- for this election cycle only -- while it considers whether to take the case.
North Carolina's law severely limits the forms of identification that are acceptable for one to present in order to register to vote. How severely? An analysis of data from the state Board of Elections by Democracy North Carolina revealed that blacks, women, and Democrats are disproportionately likely to lack one of the acceptable forms of ID, while whites, men, and Republicans are disproportionately likely to possess one of them. Need I remind you that this new law was enacted by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and a Republican-controlled legislature? The folks who sued to block the law noted "that it surgically eliminated the precise forms of registration and voting that had enabled significant expansion of African-Americans' civic participation in North Carolina over the previous decade."
How about Ohio? In 2010 Republican John Kasich became governor, Jon Husted became secretary of state, and their party took over the legislature. They immediately set about undoing the measures implemented to ease the long lines at the polls that so embarrassed the Buckeye State in 2004, measures that ensured relatively smooth sailing on Election Day in 2008. What was their problem with what happened in Ohio in 2008? Barack Obama won, and those new laws helped him win by getting too many of the, ahem, "wrong" sort voting.
As Dale Ho -- he runs the ACLU's voting rights project -- explained, early voters had, before 2008, typically been middle class and wealthy people, as well as being older than average, because those were the folks who were more likely to know about the option to vote before Election Day. And for which party do people who fall into those categories disproportionately vote? Take a wild guess. But in 2008, Ho noted, "the script got flipped." And -- all of a sudden -- Republicans became desperate to limit early voting.
Republicans claim that these laws are necessary to prevent "voter fraud." Let's address that lie head on. Voter impersonation fraud -- the only kind of fraud that voter ID laws can address -- is negligible. Essentially, it doesn't exist. In a case that led to a Texas law being struck down last week by a federal judge, the evidence showed that, over 14 years, there were two (2) instances of in-person, voter impersonation fraud out of 62 million ballots cast. Loyola University Law School professor Justin Levitt found a grand total of 31 "credible incidents" (some of which may still end up being disproven) in which voter impersonation fraud was perpetrated, incidents that involve about 200 voters. This is out of over a billion votes cast in elections nationwide since 2000.
How about voter fraud more broadly? A five-year investigation conducted by the George W. Bush-era Department of Justice found a few dozen instances out of the hundreds of millions of votes in federal elections. As Kevin Drum wrote, "Voter fraud is literally less likely than being hit by lightning."
These voting restriction laws are not about fraud. They never have been. They are about winning. Florida Republicans were apparently open -- to one another -- about this. And sometimes they even slip up in public, as when Pennsylvania Republican Mike Turzai crowed that the laws on voting restrictions he helped pass as his party's state House leader would "allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." Too bad that didn't work out for him, but the intent is clear nonetheless.
In reality, these voter suppression tactics reflect more than three decades of right-wing thinking on voting. They have always understood that increasing voter participation does not serve the partisan interests of Republicans. In 1980, right-wing guru Paul Weyrich said:
"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."
We see this thinking revealed whenever right-wingers are being honest about voter participation. Fox News hosts had this to say the other day:
"Do we want them [young people] to vote if they don't know the issues?" Harris Faulkner asked Wednesday afternoon.
"No!" Lisa Kennedy Montgomery answered. "You absolutely don't!"
"Do you really want to motivate them to vote and be ignorant at the polls?" Faulkner continued.
And if you want to know what conservatives really think, just ask a tea partier. Judson Phillips is the president of Tea Party Nation (which is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), and in 2010 he offered a stroll down history lane in order to argue for even more restrictions on the right to vote:
The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn't you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you're a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you're not a property owner, you know, I'm sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.
The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes...But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How's that?
Now the truth is coming out about the impact of these voting restriction laws. A recent study conducted by the nonpartisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) found that restrictive voter ID laws passed in Kansas and Tennessee were responsible for reducing voter turnout by about 2 percent in 2012--with turnout among blacks dropping a few percent more than among whites in both states--more than enough to swing a close election. The report compared turnout data in those two states to data in four other states (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, and Maine) that had not changed their voting laws prior to that election.
Judge Nelva Gonzales, in her opinion striking down the Texas law mentioned above, noted: "There has been a clear and disturbing pattern of discrimination in the name of combatting voter fraud in Texas," and added that the evidence presented demonstrates that the law's supporters "were motivated, at the very least in part, because of and not merely in spite of the voter ID law's detrimental effects on the African-American and Hispanic electorate." In other words, Republicans knew exactly what they were doing when they passed these laws.
Speaking historically, voter suppression is anything but un-American. Apple pie and Chevy have got nothing on it. But when we say that voter suppression is un-American, we are talking not about what we have been, but what we ought to be. Equality for all stands at the very core of our country's ideals, even though it took two centuries for our laws to get right with that principle. We have come a long way from the days when people had to bleed and die for the right to vote, but the voter suppression tactics that conservatives employ today seek, without question, to trample on that sacred and hard-won right.
Tea party types can wear all the Colonial-era costumes they want, but those who fight to ensure that every adult citizen can vote are the ones who truly represent America's founding values. We do what Martin Luther King Jr. did when he wrote that the Civil Rights movement would overcome because "the goal of America is freedom," and declared that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream." We do what Harvey Milk did when he proclaimed: "All men are created equal. Now matter how hard they try, they can never erase those words. That is what America is about." We do what Barbara Jordan did when she called for "an America as good as its promise." Those who would deny equality, who would deny democracy--they are the ones who are un-American. When we fight for equality and for democracy, we fight for America, and for all Americans.