GOP's New Voter ID Laws Could Impact 10 Million Voters
Stricter new voter ID laws passed by GOP-controlled legislatures have the potential to affect far more voters than envisioned last fall, according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School whose previous estimate has been the much-cited statistic in the nationwide press.
According to a report issued Tuesday, up to 10 million voters -- particularly lower-income people who do not have easy access to state offices to obtain the 'alternative forms of ID' that will allow otherwise eligible voters to get a ballot -- are likely to be affected in 10 states that have adopted the new ID laws.
"Ten states now have unprecedented restrictive voter ID laws," the report's executive summary began. "Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin all require citizens to produce specific types of government-issued photo identification before they can cast a vote that will count. Legal precedent requires these states to provide free photo ID to eligible voters who do not have one."
In a handful of these states, legal action--either by voting rights groups, Democratic party representatives, the Justice Department--has resulted in federal courts temporarily blocking the ID laws from taking effect before November. Wisconsin is one such example, where a state court again blocked a draconian ID law from taking effect, although that ruling is all-but certain to be appealed.
"The [Wisconsin] court found no evidence in the record presented of impersonation voter fraud which would support an i.d. requirement.," wrote Rick Hasen, an election law professor and influential blogger explaining that ruling and highlighting the same issues in the Brennan Center report.
"The court found credible cases of people who would have difficulty getting voter i.d. under the Wisconsin law, which the court called the strictest in the nation," Hasen said. "What is not clear is how many people would have the difficulty getting the i.d. and whether the Wisconsin Supreme Court, when it gets the eventual appeal in this case, will decide that the class of people facing such general difficulties could bring an as-applied challenge to the law."
The Brennan Center's report explained that the voter suppression strategy employed by Republicans begins far before Election Day, when people who are otherwise legal, eligible and registered voters turn up at polling places and except to cast a ballot. It explained that these new ID laws often say that the state will assist people to obtain the newly required IDs, but then details how states are either not following through with that or have made that very difficult.
"The 11 percent of eligible voters who lack the required photo ID must travel to a designated government office to obtain one," the report said, and then listed the following statistics about this voter cohort:
• Nearly 500,000 eligible voters do not have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID-issuing office. Many of them live in rural areas with dwindling public transportation options.
• More than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest state ID-issuing office.
• 1.2 million eligible black voters and 500,000 eligible Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office. People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo ID than the general population.
• Many ID-issuing offices maintain limited business hours. For example, the office in Sauk City, Wisconsin is open only on the fifth Wednesday of any month. But only four months in 2012 — February, May, August, and October — have five Wednesdays. In other states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas — many part-time ID-issuing offices are in the rural regions with the highest concentrations of people of color and people in poverty.
There was a monetary cost to obtaining these alternatives IDs, the Brennan Center report said, in addition to time delays involved with obtaining the documentary proof required under the new laws.
"More than 1 million eligible voters in these states fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office," the report explained. "These voters may be particularly affected by the significant costs of the documentation required to obtain a photo ID. Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax — outlawed during the civil rights era — cost $10.64 in current dollars."
The report concluded that the new voter IDs were the modern-day equivalent of a poll tax, which racist segregationists used for decades in many southern states and a handful of northern cities with large immigrant populations, to prevent 'undesirable' eligible voters from voting.
"The result is plain: Voter ID laws will make it harder for hundreds of thousands of poor Americans to vote," the report said. "They place a serious burden on a core constitutional right that should be universally available to every American citizen. This November, restrictive voter ID states will provide 127 electoral votes — nearly half of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Therefore, the ability of eligible citizens without photo ID to obtain one could have a major influence on the outcome of the 2012 election."
The presidential swing states where voter ID laws have been adopted are Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In Wisconsin, state courts have blocked the law for now--although those decisions are likely to be appealed. In Pennsylvania, the Justice Department does not have jurisdiction to reject the voting law change as it does in other southern states, like South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. However, there is a chance the Obama campaign and Democratic Party would file a suit challenging that new law, as it did with a suit filed this week in Ohio challenging a GOP law curtailing early voting.
The lawsuit filed this week in Columbus, Ohio, was the first of the 2012 presidential campaign filed by the Obama campaign. In its brief, it raised the precedent of Bush v. Gore, where the Supreme Court stopped a Florida presidential recount because not all voters and ballots were receiving equal treatment by state and local election officials. The brief said that ending the long-established practice of voting on the weekend before the Tuesday presidential Election Day could effect nearly 100,000 voters, based on previous turnout figures.
In the 2004 contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, Bush won Ohio by approximately 118,000 votes, according to the official results that were contested in a recount and subsequently questioned by scholars.
It is not idle speculation to expect that the Obama campaign and Democratic Party will cite the same legal arguments as in its Ohio brief to challenge the Pennsylvania voter ID law, which the state's Republican Senate Majority Leader was caught on camera saying was passed to win the state for Romney.