Since taking office in January, conservative legislators in state houses across the country have raised the specter of voter fraud to quietly — and quickly — push through a series of bills that would make it significantly more difficult for large swaths of the population to vote, including college students, rural voters, senior citizens, the disabled, and the homeless. Proposed legislation would dramatically change how the country votes ahead of the 2012 elections, requiring Americans in some states to present their birth certificate before registering to vote and show a DMV-issued photo identification at the polls. These voter ID bills would not only dampen voter turnout — depressing Hispanic turnout by as much as 10 percent — but also cost cash-strapped statehouses (and taxpayers) millions of dollars. Yet in dozens of states, Republicans have made bills restricting voting a central part of their legislative agenda — passing voter ID bills before they even begin to work on budgets. Conservatives have claimed their assault on voting rights is necessary to combat the threat of mass voter fraud. Yet the Brennan Center for Justice notes that voters are more likely to be struck by lightning than commit voter fraud, and the Bush Justice Department’s five-year “War on Voter Fraud” resulted in only 86 convictions out of 196 million votes cast. As The Progress Report’s Alex Seitz-Wald notes, “The only fraud in voter fraud is the allegation of fraud.” Instead, like their assaults on unions, Planned Parenthood, and AARP, conservatives’ anti-voter agenda is aimed at silencing the voices of those who disagree with them.
ASSAULT ON VOTING RIGHTS: After picking up more than 650 seats in state legislatures across the country last November, Republicans have moved quickly to make their anti-voter agenda into law. Kansas has already passed a bill requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. If signed by Gov. Sam Brownback (R), it would be the nation’s strictest registration requirement. Similar laws in Arizona and Georgia have been invalidated by federal courts or are waiting review from the Justice Department. Texas and Ohio are now in competition to be the first to pass the most restrictive voting rights legislation in the country. Both state Houses have already approved bills that could disenfranchise more than 12 percent of the electorate . And in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Montana, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Missouri, at least one legislative chamber has approved a photo ID bill. By the end of the year, these states could join eight others that have already passed and implemented voter ID requirements. They’ve been able to move so quickly with the help of the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which has distributed “model” voter ID legislation to conservative lawmakers that bears a striking similarity to bills in at least two states. But conservatives may come to regret passing the laws they now so eagerly support. In Indiana for example, photo ID laws have forced election workers to turn nuns and college students away from the polls. And voters may not be very happy to bear the cost of implementing new voter systems. As the Brennan Center notes, “in a difficult fiscal environment, citizens may reasonably question whether there are more pressing needs on which to spend their tax dollars than photo ID rules.”
THE NEXT FRONTIER: Last month, conservatives were on the verge of passing voter ID bills in at least two dozen statehouses. But in the past few weeks, progressive lawmakers and organizations have fought back, killing bills in seven states. And progressives are not just playing defense. In four states, lawmakers are moving forward on what The Progress Report’s Scott Keyes has called “the next frontier in voting rights”: online voter registration. Already implemented in eleven states, electronic registration is not only cost-effective but has, according to t he Pew Research Center, increased “voter list accuracy, streamlined the process for government officials, and enjoyed overwhelming public support.” But most importantly, online registration has a track record of raising voter turnout, especially among younger voters, compared to those who registered using “traditional methods.” While conservative statehouses across the nation work to make voting more expensive and more difficult, progressives have found “a welcome reform” that will make the country’s voting system more accountable, more cost-effective, and more inclusive.
FROM JIM CROW TO THE TEA PARTY: Today’s battles over voting rights are just the latest episode in the right’s long campaign to restrict voting rights. For more than a century, conservatives have ginned up the threat of voter fraud to restrict the voting rights of minorities and the poor. In the Jim Crow South, historian Leon Litwack notes, “respectable” Southern whites justified their support for poll taxes and literacy taxes — which disenfranchised millions of African-Americans — “as a way to reform and purify the electoral process, to root out fraud and bribery.” Since 1958 both the RNC and state GOP committees have en gaged in more than half a dozen “voter caging” efforts supposedly designed to “prevent voter fraud” by challenging the residency, and voter eligibility, of thousands living in low-income and minority communities. Most recently, during the lead-up to the 2010 election, the Koch-funded front group Americans for Prosperity planned a soph isticated voter caging campaign that would have used GOP lawyers and Tea Party volunteers to challenge the eligibility of voters at the polls in an effort to stop “voter fraud” and prevent “stolen elections.” And in 2006, U.S. Attorneys David Iglesias and Tom Heffelfinger lost their jobs after they ran afoul of GOP activists for refusing to prosecute voting fraud cases where little evidence existed and expressing “deep concerns” about laws curbing Native Americans ability to vote.