All eyes are on Iowa this week, as the hodgepodge field of Republican contenders gallivants across that farm state seeking a win, or at least “momentum,” in the campaign for the party’s presidential nomination. But behind the scenes, a battle is being waged by Republicans—not against each other, but against American voters. Across the country, state legislatures and governors are pushing laws that seek to restrict access to the voting booth, laws that will disproportionately harm people of color, low-income people, and young and elderly voters.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have just released a comprehensive report on the crisis, “Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America.” In it, they write: “The heart of the modern block the vote campaign is a wave of restrictive government-issued photo identification requirements. In a coordinated effort, legislators in thirty-four states introduced bills imposing such requirements. Many of these bills were modeled on legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a conservative advocacy group whose founder explained: ‘Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.’”
It is interesting that the right wing, long an opponent of any type of national identification card, is very keen to impose photo-identification requirements at the state level. Why? Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, calls the voter ID laws “a solution without a problem. ... It’s not going to make the vote more secure. What it is going to do is put the first financial barrier between people and their ballot box since we got rid of the poll tax.”
You don’t have to look far for people impacted by this new wave of voter-purging laws. Darwin Spinks, an 86-year-old World War II veteran from Murfreesboro, Tenn., went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a photo ID for voting purposes, since drivers over 60 there are issued driver’s licenses without photos. After waiting in two lines, he was told he had to pay $8. Requiring a voter to pay a fee to vote has been unconstitutional since the poll tax was outlawed in 1964. Over in Nashville, 93-year-old Thelma Mitchell had a state-issued ID—the one she used as a cleaner at the state Capitol building for more than 30 years. The ID had granted her access to the governor’s office for decades, but now, she was told, it wasn’t good enough to get her into the voting booth. She and her family are considering a lawsuit, an unfortunate turn of events for a woman who is older than the right of women to vote in this country.
It is not just the elderly being given the disenfranchisement runaround. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law points to “bills making voter registration drives extremely difficult and risky for volunteer groups, bills requiring voters to provide specific photo ID or citizenship documents ... bills cutting back on early and absentee voting, bills making it hard for students and active-duty members of the military to register to vote locally, and more.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently spoke on this alarming trend. He said: “Our efforts honor the generations of Americans who have taken extraordinary risks, and willingly confronted hatred, bias and ignorance—as well as billy clubs and fire hoses, bullets and bombs—to ensure that their children, and all American citizens, would have the chance to participate in the work of their government. The right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of government—it is the lifeblood of our democracy.”
Just this week, the Justice Department blocked South Carolina’s new law requiring voters to show photo IDs at the polls, saying data submitted by South Carolina showed that minority voters were about 20 percent more likely to lack acceptable photo ID required at polling places.
By some estimates, the overall population that may be disenfranchised by this wave of legislation is upward of 5 million voters, most of whom would be expected to vote with the Democratic Party. The efforts to quash voter participation are not genuine, grass-roots movements. Rather, they rely on funding from people like the Koch brothers, David and Charles. That is why thousands of people, led by the NAACP, marched on the New York headquarters of Koch Industries two weeks ago en route to a rally for voting rights at the United Nations.
Despite the media attention showered on the Iowa caucuses, the real election outcomes in 2012 will likely hinge more on the contest between billionaire political funders like the Kochs and the thousands of people in the streets, demanding one person, one vote.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.