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Voter Suppression and Election Protection

By Mike Signer | October 5, 2011 | No Comments

A troubling report was just released by the Brennan Center for Justice titled “Voting Law Changes in 2012.”  The report focuses on conservative legislation passed in states across the country in the first quarters of 2011-including 19 new laws and two new executive actions, with at least 42 bills still pending-that will make it harder for millions of people to vote.  But not in Virginia — yet — thanks to the State Senate.

Some states will now require voters to show government-issued photo identification, while other states are restricting early voting.  Two states have reversed earlier reforms that allowed prior offenders to vote.  According to the report:

These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election.

The new laws will make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012, especially in several likely battleground states.  The study estimates that over 5 million voters could be affected by the new laws:

  • 3.2 million voters affected by new photo ID laws.
  • 240,000 additional citizens and potential voters affected by new proof of citizenship laws.
  • 202,000 voters registered in 2008 through voter registration drives that have now been made extremely difficult or impossible under new laws.
  • 60,000 voters registered in 2008 through Election Day voter registration where it has now been repealed.
  • One to two million voters who voted in 2008 on days eliminated under new laws rolling back early voting.
  • At least 100,000 disenfranchised citizens who might have regained voting rights by 2012.

The reason offered for these new laws is voter fraud.  Yet instances of voter fraud are so rare these proponents almost never are able to cite instances to support such sweeping actions.  According to a recent op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Kansas reports more sightings of UFOs than voter-fraud charges. Realistically, there’s no significant problem.

Part of the problem here is probably an outright attempt to skew the vote in a more conservative direction, just as Katherine Harris in Florida and Ken Blackwell in Ohio manipulated voting systems to benefit Republicans.

But there’s also a deeper, equally insidious problem at work: a philosophy that sees voting as a privilege, not a right.  For the last decade, I have been involved in several Virginia “election protection” programs — where trained lawyers and volunteers work outside Virginia’s polls to provide guidance to voters and prevent any efforts to intimidate voters or confuse the system, as happened in Florida in 2000.

In 2004, I coordinated the Democrats’ statewide voter protection program.  Afterward, I founded, along with over a hundred of our volunteers, a grassroots organization called New Electoral Reform Alliance for Virginia that developed several bills that would reform the system.

One day in Richmond, we met with legislators to discuss bills that would have made voting easier — such as a proposal to implement “no-excuse absentee voting” (replacing today’s antiquated system, where voters must provide a reason for voting earlier than Election Day).  I vividly remember one very conservative legislator from Hampton Roads telling us that she didn’t agree that voting should be easier — that she liked the idea that people had to go out of their way on a Tuesday  to vote.

That’s a philosophical difference and it goes to the heart of the democratic experiment.  It seems straightforward that we ought to make voting easier, more free, more fair, and available to all.  But some just don’t agree — and the irony is that extremists often posture as if they have the interests of these folks in mind.

In Virginia, we’ve been fortunate that the State Senate has stopped similar attempts, such as a bill that would have required voters to have a government-issued ID card (an expense and process that many poor, elderly, and disabled citizens — especially in rural and urban locations — can’t afford).  Virginia does not appear on the list of restrictive states, and Governor McDonnell deserves credit for granting restoration of rights applications by prior offenders at a decent pace.

However, there is recent news that the Republican-controlled State Board of Elections (in Virginia, we have a partisan voting system — control of the state Board as well as local Boards of Election, under law, shifts to the Governor’s party) has made a decision to allow local Boards to invalidate absentee ballots that are illegible.  In other words, at the discretion of a local official, someone’s penmanship could disqualify their vote.  This seems squarely in line with the “voting is a privilege, not a right” line of reasoning.

The effort underway across the country deserves vigilant and close attention.  The Democratic Party of Virginia is currently recruiting volunteers for its “Promote and Protect the Vote” Program.  Anyone who’s interested in helping make sure our system is free, fair, and open should consider volunteering.  You can sign up here.

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