Over the past year and a half, several states have attempted to implement laws that, in practice, will greatly restrict access to the ballot box. Lawmakers have designed legislation to restrict access to the polls by shortening the early voting period, eliminating Election Day registration, making it harder for third-party groups to register voters, and restricting the types of identification a voter can use to vote. While proponents defend these bills by using false claims of widespread voter fraud, it is hard not to see the underlying intent is to erect barriers to make voting more difficult. Instead of eliminating fraud, these laws have the effect of discouraging voting among minorities, low-income voters, the elderly, voters with disabilities, young people, women, and low-wage workers.
SHORTENING EARLY VOTING PERIODS
This year Florida and Ohio passed legislation to shorten the period when voters can vote early. In Florida, the number of days to vote early was reduced from 14 to eight. In Ohio, the in-person early voting window was shortened from 35 days before Election Day to 17 days and the period for absentee voting by mail from 35 days to 21. These changes will result in longer lines, more complications, and more provisional ballots on Election Day that will turn many voters away or make their ballot not count. However, Ohio lawmakers repealed the law shortening early voting after a referendum to reject the law was placed on the November ballot. Unfortunately, the repeal did not restore early voting the weekend before Election Day.
ENDING ELECTION DAY REGISTRATION
Last year, Maine passed legislation that would end the state’s 38-year history of registering to vote on Election Day. The legislation would have cut off voter registration two days before an election. Proponents of ending Election Day registration state that it results in errors and increases the likelihood of voter fraud. However, after allegations by Maine GOP Chair Charlie Webster that over 200 ineligible students voted in Maine, the Maine Secretary of State investigated and only found one instance of voter fraud in the past decade. Fortunately, Mainers gathered enough petition signatures to place the bill up for a “people’s veto” and the law was overturned last November. The Montana legislature also passed a bill to end Election Day registration last year. Fortunately, it was vetoed by Governor Brian Schweitzer (D).
RESTRICTIONS ON THIRD-PARTY REGISTRATION
Both Florida and Texas passed laws last year that make it harder for third-party groups to conduct voter registration drives. In Florida, black and Hispanic Floridians and those from Spanish-speaking homes are over twice as likely to register to vote via third party groups as white Floridians or those from English-speaking households. The new law will require voter registration groups to register all paid staff and volunteers with the state if they are collecting voter registration forms. These groups will have 48 hours to return signed voter registration forms or face fines up to $1,000. The League of Women’s Voters (LWV), a group that has registered voters for over the past 70 years in Florida, ended its voter registration program in Florida because of the new law. Fortunately, LWV has resumed its voter registration program after parts of Florida’s new law were blocked in federal court. Michigan is also considering legislation to restrict third party voter registration.
STRICTER VOTER ID LAWS
In 2011, 34 states considered more restrictive voter ID laws. Of those, 12 states passed legislation to require or request a photo ID to vote, however in five of those states the Democratic governor vetoed the legislation. Those states include Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. The seven states with new photo ID requirements are Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
Mississippi voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring voter photo ID that must go through preclearance from the US Department of Justice. In South Carolina and Texas, the U.S. Department of Justice denied preclearance of the voter ID law because the state could not prove the law would not have a discriminatory affect on minority voting. Those cases are on appeal. In Wisconsin, two separate state judges issued injunctions suspending the law, ruling that the law violated the state constitution’s guarantee to the right to vote.
This year, several more states have introduced strict ID legislation including Colorado, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Recently, Virginia passed a voter ID law that also allows non-photo ID. Pennsylvania’s new photo ID law is considered one of the strictest in the country. New Hampshire passed a voter photo ID law after overriding a veto.
Proponents of photo ID laws claim these laws need to be put in place to stop voter fraud. However, no evidence exists of widespread voter fraud. The incidence of voter fraud is so low that an American is more likely to be struck by lightning than an incidence of voter fraud to occur – for a good reason. It’s not worth the hefty fines and jail time for one extra vote. Moreover, voting is the foundation of our democracy. Disenfranchising millions for something that rarely occurs weakens our democracy not strengthens it.
PURGING OF VOTER ROLLS
Recently, Florida Governor Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner ordered the Florida Division of Elections to send county supervisors of elections a list of nearly 2,700 voters that they flagged as possible non-citizens by comparing voter lists with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) database and jury recusal forms. These “matches” are scheduled to be removed from the rolls if they do not respond to notification within 30 days. Already over 500 of those on the list have shown documentation proving they are eligible voters. Given the high error rate, many eligible voters in Florida could lose their right to vote if they do not respond to the letter. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit challenging the program. The Fair Elections Legal Network, along with other civil and voting rights groups, also filed a challenge to the program.
THESE LAWS WILL LOWER VOTER TURNOUT
Instead of protecting the integrity of the voting process, these new laws will actually harm the election process because they will make voting less convenient for everyone. These laws have a disproportionate impact on traditionally underrepresented groups including minorities, low-income voters, the elderly, voters with disabilities, young people, women, and low-wage workers. These groups are less likely to be registered to vote, have one of the forms of photo ID required by the new laws, or the means to attain one, and are more likely to take advantage of early voting periods.
STILL TO COME IN 2012
The Minnesota legislature passed a bill to place a photo ID constitutional amendment before voters. Michigan legislators are sending legislation to the governor that will restrict voter registration drives and require photo ID to register to vote.