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Debunking the Right's Latest Voting Rights Claim: Tough ID Laws Do Not Empower Minorities

Right-wingers point to voter turnout statistics in Georgia and ignore larger demographic shifts.
 
 
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Georgia is not a presidential swing-state in 2012, but it is a state where fierce opponents in the national fight over voter-suppressing voter ID laws have come out swinging. 

There is a right-wing cabal of public intellectuals and attorneys who have led the GOP’s charge in recent years to toughen statewide voter ID laws for millions of voters—which is needed to get a ballot—based on hyped claims that American elections were overrun with fraudulent voting. Everyone who has been paying attention to this fight knows that behind GOP claims of "election integrity" is the strategy of creating barriers for key Democratic cohorts that are more than likely to lack recently issued state photo IDs: urbanites who do not drive, students and poor people. 

But now there is an outrageous new twist—that tougher voter ID empowers minorities. The evidence cited is that minority turnout soared in Georgia after it adopted its tougher ID law.This claim is made in the new book by the former Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund and Hans von Spakovsky, who is infamously known for politicizing the Justice Department’s Voting Rights section under George W. Bush, leading to the firing of a half-dozen U.S. attorneys who didn’t sufficiently pursue voter fraud and voter impersonation cases.

Georgia became the center of attention in the voter ID wars when the Advancement Project, a progressive public interest law firm, released a study September 24 that concluded 10 million Hispanic voters across the U.S. are likely to be disenfranchised this fall because of numerous “discriminatory voting policies” enacted by states, including tougher voter ID laws. It said non-citizen voter purges and onerous proof of citizenship rules would hinder many Hispanics from voting, and it could even affect the outcome of the November election.

“We’re seeing a big wave of voter suppression this year, restricting voting rights that we haven’t seen since the era of poll taxes and literacy tests,” Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez, the Washington-based director of Voter Protection said. “We are very concerned about this trend.”

Within hours of that study’s release, the right wing responded. “Absurd,” said Von Spakovsky, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights, former member of the Federal Election Commission, and now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies in Washington. He blogged there “is no evidence whatsoever” that Hispanics will be disenfranchised in large numbers, and he used Georgia as an example to prove it.

Von Spakovsky called the Advancement Project study “simply more propaganda by a radical organization that opposes all efforts to improve the integrity of the election process.” He said that the Justice Department agreed that Georgia’s voting law is not discriminatory under the federal Voting Rights Act, and has had “no effect on Hispanic voters.”

Von Spakovsky cited Georgia’s voting turnout numbers for the past two elections, claiming that 2008 certified election results indicate the turnout rate for Latino voters jumped “a startling 140 percent over 2004.” He also wrote that in the 2010 midterm election, “Hispanic turnout went up a dramatic 66.5 percent over the prior midterm election in 2006, when there was no photo ID law in effect.” His conclusion: the claim of voter suppression by the Advancement Project is “ridiculous.”

Let’s look at the facts and history. Georgia’s Hispanic population grew an astounding 96 percent from 2000 to 2010. The U.S. Census reports that group now makes up 8.8 percent of the Peach State’s nearly 10 million residents. They could pose a significant threat to the state’s Republican establishment, which currently controls the governor’s office and legislature. And they are far more likely to vote for Democrats.

In 2006, Georgia’s General Assembly toughened voter ID standards, requiring photo IDs before a person could get a ballot and vote in a polling place. Georgia is one of 23 states, nearly half the nation, with new voter ID laws. As the 2012 election approached, GOP-led legislatures have been rushing to enact new laws, many of which have been challenged in court this summer.

Wisconsin’s new law has been put on hold by the courts. In Pennsylvania, Commonwealth Court judge Robert Simpson must rule on a highly controversial voter ID measure by Tuesday, which could affect hundreds of thousands of voters this fall. But in the meantime, right-wingers like Von Spakovsky are citing Georgia’s experience as proof that voter ID laws actually help minority voters. Academics who don’t have a book and a policy to sell say "not so fast."

Dr. Michael McDonald of George Mason University and a nationally known expert on voter turnout, said von Spakovsky is cherry-picking statistics and not following a sound methodology.

“Scholars typically examine several elections to smooth out any election-specific variation,” he said. “Minorities might have been particularly excited to vote for Barack Obama in 2008, which would have driven up their turnout in that election. Persons who were deterred from voting because they didn’t have ID have been more than offset by increased voting among those who did.”

McDonald had harsh criticism for von Spakovsky’s interpretation of the 2010 off-year election results, which he called a “false and misleading way of viewing a change in participation with respect to a new law.” No voting scholar would compare a lower turnout midterm election to a higher presidential election as a way to assess the effect of Georgia’s new law. “I’m surprised that Hans von Spakovsky did not find an election for dog catcher to compare the presidential election, to further distort the numbers in favor of his argument,” McDonald said.

The Advancement Project’s Culliton-Gonzalez shares that view. “In 2010, Latino turnout did go up a bit but the Latino population in Georgia boomed exponentially,” she noted. “So to conclude these laws don’t have any sort of disparate impact on Latinos is unfair.”

“What von Spakovsky says is illogical,” said Henry Carey, a political science professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta and an official of the Georgia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The rise in Hispanic voters is a result of demographics, not voter ID laws.” He worries that a continued push by Republicans to impose tough voting regulations will disenfranchise not just minorities but the poor, elderly, and other Americans who should have the right to vote. “By creating difficulties, you’re going to suppress the turnout,” he said.

In his commentary, von Spakovsky concluded, “There is simply no basis for any claim that there will be mass voter suppression and intimidation in the November election that will affect large numbers of Hispanics [or other voters].”

Culliton-Gonzalez disagrees. She said Georgia has asked the federal government to use a new immigration database to crosscheck the state’s voter list for non-citizens who registered to vote. The GOP has used that tactic in other states, notably Florida and Colorado, where after loudly proclaiming that tens of thousands of illegal voters were on the state’s lists, only a handful—perhaps 100 in states with millions of voters—were identified. But the publicity surrounding their outsized claims is scaring people away from voting, Culliton-Gonzalez and other civil rights advocates have said—including local Florida election supervisors.

“The incidence of non-citizens voting in Georgia is infinitesimal. If the state uses the federal data base to purge rolls, that would disenfranchise voters of color,” she said.

The facts remain clear. The decision by nearly half the states, including Georgia, to impose new and higher barriers to voting is far more political than it is protective of voting rights. Countless studies have shown almost no use of false IDs, or voting by those who are not citizens. Liberal activists say a bigger problem is that citizens who should be casting ballots are not doing so. That continues to raise the question: are fearful politicians acting in a punitive way merely to retain their own grasp on power? It certainly looks that way from here.

George Bauer is a print and broadcast journalist living in Atlanta, Georgia.