News & Politics

GOP Voter Suppression ID Laws May Affect Millions of Legal Voters

The Brennan Center's report doubles its estimated impact from last fall as 2012 voting rights litigation heats up.

Stricter new voter ID laws passed by GOP-controlled legislatures have the potential to affect millions of voters in 10 states this fall, including large numbers in the presidential swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School.

The voters most likely to be affected are half-a-million low-income people who don't have a car or easy access to state offices to obtain the "alternative forms of ID" these new voter suppression laws say would allow otherwise eligible voters to get a ballot. Moreover, 10 million eligible voters--including many African Americans and Latinos--live more than 10 miles from these offices, which in some states are open only several days a month.

"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."

The Brennan Center’s new report doubles the number of voters that could be affected. Last fall, when it reported on the likely impact of voting law changes in 2012, it said that upwards of 5 million otherwise eligible legal voters could be prevented from voting by the new laws passed by GOP-controlled states.

“This November, restrictive voter ID states will provide 127 electoral votes — nearly half of the 270 needed to win the presidency,” its newer report said. “Therefore, the ability of eligible citizens without photo ID to obtain one could have a major influence on the outcome of the 2012 election."

Republican voter suppression tactics have been a steadily growing feature in recent presidential campaigns—and have become so blatant in 2012 that even political moderates, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein has concluded that, “It is time for a Voting Rights Act of 2012, a new federal law to make federal elections free and fair, with the goal of enhancing the ability of eligible voters to vote, not the opposite.”

The Brennan Center’s 10-million voter figure is no doubt alarming, but it also includes states that are firmly in the red column when it comes to the 2012 presidential election. For example, nobody expects Kansas to elect new Democrats to federal office. On the other hand, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Web site lists 10 competitive House races in the voter ID states in the Brennan Center report. And leading Democratic pollsters list an additional half-dozen House seats up for grabs in these 10 states, underscoring that the GOP’s voter suppression strategy is all about retaining power.  

It is also important to note that in a handful of these harsh voter ID states, legal action--either initiated by voting rights groups, Democratic party affiliates, or the Justice Department--has resulted in 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 ID requirement," wrote Rick Hasen, an election law professor and influential blogger explaining that ruling and highlighting the same issues as in the Brennan Center report.

"The court found credible cases of people who would have difficulty getting voter ID 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 ID 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 polls and except to cast a ballot. It explained that these new ID laws often say that the state will help 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 cost to obtaining these alternatives IDs, the report said, in addition to time delays involved with obtaining the 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," it said. "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.” 

Republicans will undoubtedly attack the Brennan Center report as partisan and pro-Democrat. But the very trends and issues the Brennan report documents are cited in greater detail in this week’s ruling by a Wisconsin judge when issuing a permanent injunction against that state’s new voter ID law, saying it could prevent more than 300,000 legal voters from casting ballots—such as former veterans who lack birth certificates and but have every right to vote.

Moreover, the ruling by Dane County Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan contains a footnote that is worth keeping in mind. When discussing why his state’s new voter ID law may be the most severe in the country, he also notes that the states with the harshest voter ID laws (see bottom, page 4) do not have these same barriers for people who vote by mail-in absentee ballot. It’s common knowledge in political campaign circles that the Republicans tend to rely more on absentee ballot get-out-the-vote campaigns than Democrats, who tend to be more focused on turning out voters who will go to polling places to vote. That is another dimension to how voter ID laws are a voter suppression tool.  

The other presidential swing state where a harsh new voter ID law has been adopted is Pennsylvania. There, the federal Justice Department does not have jurisdiction to block the voting law change as it does in a handful of Southern states cited in the Brennan report, such as South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. However, there is a strong chance that the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party will file a suit challenging that ID law, as it did with a suit filed this week in Ohio challenging a GOP law curtailing early voting.

This week in Columbus, Ohio, the Obama campaign filed its first voting rights lawsuit of the 2012 presidential campaign. Its brief raised the precedent of the Supreme Court’s controversial Bush v. Goredecision, where it stopped a 2000 Florida presidential recount because not all voters and ballots were receiving equal treatment by state and local election officials.

The Obama campaign brief said that ending Ohio’s long-established practice of voting on the weekend before the Tuesday’s Election Day could affect nearly 100,000 voters, based on previous presidential election turnout figures. In the 2004 race, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 118,775 votes, 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.

“We will evaluate all of our options in all the states,” replied an Obama campaign spokesman who declined to be more specific about their litigation plans. “The Ohio legislature's maneuvering to restrict access to Early Vote is an egregious example of action to limit the vote that is arbitrary and without justification. We feel it is important to fight to protect the rights of voters so that everyone has a chance to make their voices heard on Election Day.”