Today’s Super Tuesday primary involves 10 states and 437 delegates at stake for the Republican Party’s presidential prospects. There are two states among that crop that are worth taking a look at: Georgia and Tennessee. Both are emblems for a growing, and troubling, legislative trend in which new election laws mandate citizens to produce photo identification to vote, ask people to prove their citizenship to vote, or outright curtail voter registration efforts.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as five million eligible voters could meet difficulties this Election Day due to these new, imposing voter laws.
There are currently eight states with photo voter ID laws containing specific criteria for what qualifies as “identification” for voting purposes. Some states require that identification be state-issued and only for the state a person is voting in; some prohibit college IDs; some demand that the full name and address on the card be current; while some require that an ID card has an expiration date.
Looking at those stipulations, it’s not hard to imagine how low-income citizens, African Americans, Latino Americans, college students, and elderly voters—groups the Brennan Center has identified as the most burdened by new voter laws—might get tangled up on voter day. The Center estimates that as many as 11 percent of eligible voters lack proper identification right now. For African Americans, it’s 25 percent—that’s 5.5 million voting-age black Americans who could get turned away at the polls for being undocumented and unphotographed.
Other groups like Native Americans, transgendered people, newly divorced, newly married couples or people who’ve recently lost their homes could all have information on their drivers licenses that reflect names, addresses and faces that aren’t current. The costs for these groups will be more than an inconvenience: fees for new birth and marriage certificates, hours lost waiting in lines for updated materials and transportation costs to handle it all.
How did we get to this point? Let’s just say the emergence of these laws are no coincidence. Thousands of Republicans from dozens of states didn’t all just wake up one day and decide we need an ID card to vote. And yet almost every voter ID law now in play or pending happened in the last four years—since Barack Obama ran for and became the nation’s first black president.
Republicans in state legislatures around the country have tried to pass these laws for years. Their efforts had been repeatedly voted down or vetoed out, mostly because the U.S. Constitution prevents meddling with voters’ rights. But in 2010, Republicans not only took over Congress, they became majorities in state legislatures across the country. Numerous states that previously had Democratically controlled general assemblies turned Tea Party-red, and one of the chief items on their agendas was changing the rules of the voting game.
An example of this is Tennessee, which for the first time since the Civil War ended saw its House of Representatives, Senate and governor’s office all controlled by Republicans in 2010. Swiftly, Tennessee passed new voter ID laws, and last year made headlines when a 96-year-old African American woman named Dorothy Cooper was denied an ID to vote.
Georgia was one of the first states with a voter ID law, first passed there in 2005, and today hosts one of the Super Tuesday primaries. Today’s vote in Georgia, and fellow photo voter ID state Tennessee, will probably reveal little about how the new restrictions impact minorities and other at-risk voting groups because they mostly vote Democrat—a fact that voter ID critics stress is not lost on the Republicans who push it. Nonetheless, election officials in Tennessee and Wisconsin, which have already hosted local elections using their new voter ID laws, have bragged about how there have been no problems.
In Wisconsin, the chief elections officer Kevin J. Kennedy noted only a few voter ID glitches where people showed up with the wrong kind of ID to vote.
The story, however, is not as much what happens at the polls when the wrong ID is used as it is what happens when people don’t bother showing up at the polls at all because they think they don’t qualify due to lack of identification. The U.S. has a long history of voting shenanigans, from Jim Crow era poll taxes to current era rumors circulated, often exclusively in black communities, about who can and can’t vote.
Come this November, during the general election, the impacts of the new laws will begin to surface. Besides the eight states already holding strict voter ID laws, there are 31 more states lurking hoping to do the same. At least eight of those states could pass voter ID laws before Election Day. And of the eight that already have strict voter ID laws, five want to pass legislation this year that would make them even stricter.
Who are the movers, shakers and shapers of these potentially disenfranchising laws? A great deal of funding comes from the Koch Brothers, who’ve vowed to remove President Obama from the White House by any means, and by any billions of dollars necessary. Another player is ALEC—or, the American Legislative Exchange Council—a body that includes banks and corporations working alongside Republican legislators to craft laws that would dismantle not only voter rights, but also environmental and labor protections.
ALEC, which has Koch funding, has drafted the model legislation that many states with strict voter ID laws have followed.
This is at least true for Tennessee, but is also true for many other states. In Nebraska, where a voter ID law is being mulled, a state senator flat-out lied when a news reporter asked him about his ties to ALEC. Sen. Charlie Janssen said he wasn’t a member of ALEC and had never been to their functions, but then was confronted with the evidence that his name was listed on their site as a committee member.
Other states share similar connections. ALEC’s Minnesota state chairman, state Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, is also the author and pusher of a voter ID proposal that the governor has already vetoed once.
In Iowa, a voter ID law co-sponsor, state Sen. Linda Upmeyer, is ALEC’s treasurer. And in Tennessee, the state’s GOP Caucus Chairman, Sen. Bill Ketron, is an ALEC member.
All of this has set up a massive and high-stakes battle for civil rights organizations in 2012. The NAACP, the League of Young Voters, AARP, black church groups and college student organizations are all rallying to preserve voter protections by scrapping photo ID laws.
In Wisconsin, lawyers from The Advancement Project, League of Women Voters, ACLU and Voces de la Frontera, are in the courts battling to have Wisconsin’s law repealed on the grounds that it discriminates against people of color.
This week, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network is leading a march from Montgomery to Selma, in commemoration of the historic Civil Rights march and to protest stifling voter ID and immigration state laws. In the federal government, the Department of Justice has intervened, blocking voter ID laws in South Carolina and redistricting laws in Texas (where there are also voter ID laws), by saying they both violate the Voting Rights Act. Attorney General Eric Holder has denounced the laws across the board and the department is side-eyeing other states that have passed them.
The irony, though, is that voter ID law proponents are using the same civil rights arguments made to secure voting rights protections to now upend them. In Texas, the state initially failed to provide data on the number of African Americans that would be impacted by new voting laws as requested by the Department of Justice. As an excuse, they said they didn’t collect data on race because the Voting Rights Act told them to be colorblind.
In South Carolina and Georgia, election officials argue that they should be released from federal oversight—put in place because of the South’s violent history with stopping African Americans from voting—because civil rights legislation has worked, and no discrimination exists now.
The states are perverting and exploiting civil rights laws in order to pretend that racial discrimination has been completely eradicated. Some even point to the election of the first black president and the record turnout of voters of color in 2008 as evidence that no traces of discrimination are left in the system. Instead, they claim to trace voter fraud—people voting with the names of other displaced, deceased or fictionalized voters—and argue this is why voter IDs are needed.
All the data shows that instances of voter fraud are negligible at best. The voter fraud argument is in many cases a ploy to disguise the racial animus that fuels the voter ID push, especially as it pertains to Latino voters. Many state legislators will state emphatically that the need for voter IDs is driven by the need to keep “illegal immigrants” from voting. Former Maryland governor and congressman Robert Ehrlich Jr., now an attorney, wrote in defense of a Maryland voter ID law that, “This ‘welcome wagon’ for illegal immigrants may reflect a majoritarian view in progressive Maryland; nevertheless, it makes the realization of free and fair elections far more difficult. … Every illegal vote cast and counted degrades our democracy. Lax immigration enforcement only magnifies the problem.”
Many voter ID proponents might argue that voter ID are made possible by the success stories of the civil rights movement, but they also want to place barriers to voting because civil rights legislation may have been too successful, as evidenced by a U.S. president who’s not only a Democrat but is black. Those working to put voter restrictions in place don’t want that kind of election to happen again.