News & Politics

The GOP's 2012 Campaign Plan: Disqualify Eligible Voters

A tide of new stricter state voter ID laws proposed by Republicans targets presumed Democratic voters.

Across the country, Republican lawmakers are resurrecting one of their party's favorite but most cowardly tactics to quote, win elections. They are seeking to create new barriers to voting by passing stricter voter ID laws intended to prevent the very electoral segments who helped to elect President Obama in 2008 from receiving ballots in 2012, particularly the young, poor and elderly, according to voting rights groups.

"Touted under the guise of addressing so-called 'voter fraud,' the proposals are part of a quiet but coordinated effort to reduce the voting strength of minority voters who saw greater turnout in 2008," reads the Advancement Project's new report, "What's Wrong With This Picture: New Voter ID Proposals Part of a National Push to Turn back the Clock on Voting Rights." "The 2008 elections saw record turnout by black and brown voters, offering a glimpse of what a more equitable voter participation might look like. The photo ID proposals are part of a concerted effort to turn back the clock on voting rights."

The Advancement Project, a non-profit voting right law firm, said there were bills or new laws in 32 states requiring voters to present specific forms of government-issued photo IDs to get a ballot. Most states now require voters to show ID to vote, but those can range from driver's license to bank statements to utility bills. In contrast, the proposed or just-passed bills--in Texas, Missouri, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Minnesota and Ohio -- would only accept non-expired photo IDs from the federal government or state in which they vote.

"These photo ID proposals stand to create second-class citizenship for classes of voters, particularly racial minorities, senior citizens, young voters, people with disabilities, immigrants, the working poor and students, who are disproportionately less likely to have current state ID or face substantial hurdles to getting one, who stand to be turned away or denied a regular ballot," the Advancement Project report said.

"Studies show that approximately 11 percent of Americans, about 21 million people, lack a current government photo ID, disproportionately racial minorities, senior citizens, young voters, the working poor and people with disabilities - including: 25 percent of African American voting age citizens -- more than 5.5 million people; 15 percent of those earning less than $35,000 a year; 18 percent of those age 65 and above--more than 6 million voters; [and] 20 percent of young voters 18-29."

Republican Fears

These strident state legislators and governors would rather keep untold thousands of eligible citizens from voting on the merits of issues and candidates than have public debates and high-turnout elections where the best ideas win.

Their political rhetoric has been to claim there is a big problem with so-called voter fraud: people pretending to be someone else on Election Day and fraudulently casting more than one ballot. This belief--that Democrats are engaging in broad voter fraud--is an article of faith among die-hard Republicans, even prompting George W. Bush's Justice Department to fire career federal prosecutors who could not find real voter fraud cases to pursue and instead focused on actual, not imaginary, crimes.

Moreover, where voter fraud cases have occurred, they are exceptionally rare and almost always involve lone actors -- usually a relative of a local candidate trying to help them to win not swaths of partisan, let alone Democratic conspirators. States have prosecuted violators from both parties, and the penalties have been severe including jail.

Indeed, what the country's latest voter fraud crusaders are seeking to do is precisely the inverse of what they are accusing others of doing: instead of inflating vote totals, they are seeking to disenfranchise whole sectors of the electorate to better their odds of winning. To seek new laws prohibiting hundreds or thousands of eligible voters in state after state from casting ballots is not a response to the actions of a few lawbreakers who almost always get caught. It is a calculated and brazen move to game the outcome of those elections by disqualifying people who they presume will support their critics.

This is hardly occurring in a vacuum. The 2012 election will see presidential swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri lose U.S. House seats to other key states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia and Georgia. This shift favors the GOP and will make it harder for Democrats to retake the House and to re-elect Obama through the Electoral College. Nationwide, Republicans are aware that the only strategy Democrats might deploy in response is motivating millions who did not vote in 2010 to vote in 2012.

On the state level, GOP legislators also are seeking to prevent many constituencies who will feel the effect of GOP-led budget cuts from voting after these same legislators have refused to raise taxes on the wealthy. Who are those constituents? Many of the same sectors that elected Obama in 2008: students, the poor, and minorities, among others.

It is hard for many middle-class educated people to imagine that sizeable numbers of people in America do not have government photo IDs. But it is true, as many academics and the Advancement Project reported. Not everyone drives a car. Not everyone is aware they can go to a motor vehicle department to get a state ID card. Most people are unaware of pre-Election Day voter registration deadlines in their states; they get swept up in the emotion of the final days of a campaign and want to vote -- as eligible citizens. They present whatever paperwork they have to establish their credentials; often it is not a current federal government or state government-issued photo ID card.

The right-wing reply, historically, is that voting is a privilege and a responsibility, and if eligible individuals want to vote they should do what is required to participate: including getting the proper form of voter ID. That explanation blurs election law and their politics. Voting is a civil right, not a privilege. Eligibility in every state's voter registration statutes is based on one's age, state residency, citizenship, mental fitness and lack of a felony conviction. Eligible voters do not need new complicating barriers to the ballot.

Indeed, in one state where the photo ID bill died--Iowa--it was because local election officials forcefully stated that stricter voter ID laws did nothing to assist them to validate information on voter registration applications, which is where election officials weed out incomplete or erroneous registration applications. Instead, they said the stricter standard would cause lines and delays at the polls on Election Day, leading to angry individuals who were otherwise legal voters but were being denied a ballot due to their form of ID.

But that is exactly what the GOP is doing--removing rights--and it is not just with eligible or legal voters. Their efforts to silence state public employee unions in some of the same states now seeing voter ID legislation is based on the same premise. These partisans want to silence opponents and disenfranchise critics. They do not want fair elections or fair negotiations based on debate, varying views and voting. They want unopposed power.

Election Day Vigilantes

The biggest worry is less who will or will not have the right form of ID to register to vote or to obtain a ballot -- because any competent campaign by GOP's opponents, including by many political independents, presumably will address those nuts and bolts in 2012. The real worry is upping the climate of fear and intimidation surrounding voting.

For example, at a recent national gathering of Tea Party groups in Houston, Texas, the King Street Patriots said they would try to recruit one million poll watchers for a "True the Vote" campaign in 2012. Already, there are other Web sites by these anti-democratic political neophytes, such as "Election Integrity Watch" in Minnesota -- one of the most transparent states when it comes to elections -- telling people that votes were fabricated in 2010 because that state has Election Day registration.

The country does not need political vigilantes policing voters on Election Day. Just as the government does not need self-appointed posses patrolling the border, the typical elderly poll worker in Ohio or Pennsylvania does not need Tea Partiers interrogating voters who appear young, black, brown, elderly or some other presumed Democratic metric.

The best remedy for electoral dirty tricks is having candidates who inspire high-turnout elections -- exactly what Obama did in 2008 and the Democrats failed to do in 2010. No amount of partisan voter suppression will amount to much in a year when 132 million Americans or more vote, as they did in 2008. In 2010, in contrast, when the politicians now pushing the restrictive voter ID bills were elected, 44 million fewer people voted nationwide.

The GOP's voter suppression should be seen for what it is. Advancement Project called it "the largest legislative effort to scale back ballot access since the post-Reconstruction era, reversing a century-long trend of opening the ballot booth to groups that have been legally disenfranchised throughout our nation's history."

Do not be fooled by the posturing about ballot security and voter fraud. The democratic process is based on real debate and on an electorate voting. More people voting mean a greater consensus for governing. The heart of this matter is not why do eligible voters lack specific government-issued IDs; it is why the GOP does not want them to vote, or their votes to count in upcoming presidential, congressional, state and local elections.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at AlterNet and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).
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