By Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet
If you are a member of a racial minority, student or young voter, working poor, elderly or disabled, your ability to vote may be a lot harder in 2012 – especially if you live in states that have a history of racial repression during the Civil Rights Movement. Simply put, the Republican Party knows which segments of society helped to elect President Obama and other Democrats in 2008, knows tens of millions of these people did not vote in the 2010 midterms, and has worked very hard to stop these people from voting again next year.
Their strategy has been simple: raise the barriers by complicating the rules to register to vote, to get a ballot, to vote early, or speedily. What follows are seven major trends that will affect you if you live in a state with new rules. Republicans know that most people do not pay attention to the fine print of election law. They get excited in the final days before presidential votes. But that may not be good enough in 2012.
Whether you are encouraged, discouraged or something in between about the coming presidential season, if you want to vote, look at these trends described below, see if you live in one of these states, and plan ahead: to register, to get the right ID, and to know where you can vote. If you don’t, the Republicans may silence your vote and voice.
“Heading into 2012, we are seeing the largest assault on the right to vote since the post-Reconstruction Era,” said Denise Lieberman, senior attorney with Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization. “This is an unprecedented attack on voting that could affect more than 5 million voters in 2012; in states that represent nearly two-thirds of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Twenty new laws and executive orders in 14 states stand to turn back the clock and make it harder to vote. In 2012, two-thirds of the states introduced legislation that could impede voters and more is on the horizon for 2012.”
Tactic One: Toughen Voter ID Requirements
Before this year, most states allowed voters to use all kinds of identification, even utility bills, to get a ballot. Not anymore. Now a non-expired, state-issued photo ID is needed in eight states: Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. Looking at 2012, similar bills or ballot measures to toughen ID rules will surface in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, Maine, Minnesota and Missouri, where legislation already has been filed.
Before 2011, only two states, Georgia and Indiana, prevented voters from casting ballots if they did not have a government-issued photo ID. In 16 mostly southern states with a history of Jim Crow laws, the Justice Department must “pre-clear,” or approve, any change to voting laws before they can take effect. The ID laws in Alabama, South Carolina and Texas have not yet been cleared. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a major voting rights speech opposing all voter suppression tactics. But the Justice Department has not yet made a determination about these and other new voting laws in “covered” states.
Here’s why this is such a devious strategy. The GOP knows most Americans have little sympathy for people who lack photo ID. Polls by Democrats show that. There is a class divide here, where minorities and lower-income people, including students, disproportionately lack state-issued photo IDs. College ID cards are not the same. The GOP also knows that recent presidential elections often come down to very close votes in a handful of states, and many people in those states will want to vote next fall but will discover they cannot.
The voting eligible population of Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, which all have new ID laws, is 29 million. Of that, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School has reported that 10.3 percent – or 3.2 million voters – lack a state photo ID. In those states, Lieberman said the number of voters without the requisite photo ID is larger than the margin of victory in the 2008 presidential or U.S. Senate (Texas) races. In other words, with one change in law, the GOP will require Democrats and Independents to do a better job turning out voters in 2012 than they did in 2008 when electing Obama.
Tactic Two: Create Hurdles To Get Required ID
It takes time, money, patience and determination to get the required photo IDs. In some states, state budget crises have led to shortening the work weeks at the state agency, notably motor vehicles, or even closing branch offices – such as in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Texas – where people need to go to get the ID. The ID itself may cost between $10 and $30, but there can be hidden costs if other forms of identification are needed to verify one’s identity and residency necessary to get a state ID. For example, not everybody has a birth certificate, marriage license, passport, divorce record or other documents, adding a complicating and time-consuming factor.
The requirements for secondary IDs, if available, can cost upward of $200 (for naturalization papers, not passports), and 17 states require a photo ID to get a copy of a birth certificate, which by itself can take weeks or months. Many elderly people born at home simply do not have these underlying papers, transportation or funds to get the required voting ID. These bureaucratic steps amount to a poll tax, a notorious tactic used to stop African Americans and poor whites from voting.
Tactic Three: Intimidate Voter Registration Groups
The Republican Party knows that the majority of people who register to vote in registration drives tend to be in minority and low-income communities, and are likely to vote for Democrats, if they vote at all. They also know that voter registration drives can be sloppily run, with errors on as many as one-third of all the applications tuned in, although local election administrators are well-versed in weeding out bad forms (although they resent the last-minute workloads).
As a result, seven states tried to add new restrictions on groups and their members doing voter registration drives in 2011, and these laws passed in Florida and Texas. The restrictions in these populous states must be pre-cleared by the Justice Department, which has yet to act. But the impact of these laws – which, in Florida, creates a more rigorous schedule to turn in applications and imposes stiff fines for errors – has already discouraged some groups, such as Florida’s League of Women Voters, from even getting started for 2012. In addition to Florida and Texas, Michigan is also considering legislation to more aggressively regulate the registration drives.
Tactic Four: Try To Eliminate Same-Day Registration
In recent years, states have tried to make the voting process easier – not harder. One of the most convenient ways to help people to vote is to allow them to register at the polls or county offices and then vote. In 2011, Republicans in Maine and Ohio eliminated same-day registration, although citizen-led organizing overturned the Maine law on Election Day this past November and put a ballot initiative on the November 2012 Ohio ballot, suspending a package of draconian election laws until that vote. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s legislature will consider a bill ending same-day registration next year.
Another hurdle concerns proof of citizenship. Arizona was the first state to require proof of citizenship to register to vote, but that law has been tied up in court. Meanwhile, bills requiring proof of citizenship passed in 2011 in Kansas, Alabama and Tennessee. Only Alabama’s law has to be cleared by the Justice Department, which has yet to act.
Tactic Five: Curtail Early Voting
In recent years, states have also tried to make voting easier for people by creating or expanding the option to vote before the first Tuesday in November. In 2011, five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – passed laws rolling back early voting options. Florida’s law reduces early voting from 13 days to seven days. That is potentially very damaging to minority communities, as nearly a third of all Floridians cast early ballots in 2008, with African Americans doing so at twice the rate of whites.
In Ohio, the law – which has been put on hold by a ballot initiative that will appear in November – would have eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day. In Georgia, the law reduced early voting from 45 days to 21 days; and in Tennessee from 15 days to 13 days. The changes in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee must be pre-cleared before they can be implemented. However, the Justice Department has yet to make its determination in those states.
Tactic Six: Ban Felons From Voting
Many people remember what the Florida Secretary of State did in 2000 with erroneous lists of convicted felons in her state: she intentionally purged tens of thousands of legal voters, which was one of many factors leading to George W. Bush’s victory in that year’s presidential battleground state. That tactic’s ghost has risen in Florida and Iowa, where governors have issued executive orders either delaying or revoking the rights of former felons to regain their right to vote. Across America, there are 5.3 million people, disproportionately people of color, who cannot vote because of felony convictions.
Tactic Seven: Bleed Election Administration Budgets
This may be the least-understood and most far-reaching barrier as people try to vote in 2012. Already, tight state budgets have given cover to political decisions in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Texas to limit the operating hours of, or close, the state offices where residents can obtain required photo IDs. As a result, waiting times in the offices that remain open have grown longer in Tennessee and Wisconsin. In Texas, there are 34 counties with no Department of Public Safety Offices, including four counties where the Hispanic population is more than 75 percent.
Limiting access to voter-related services before Election Days creates very troubling precedents for Election Day, when longtime polling places might be consolidated and moved with little public notice, or under-staffed by poll workers, who are volunteers – not professional election administrators. In other words, not only do would-be voters in many states have to get their credentials in order, it may take them much longer to vote because poll workers will have more work to do to process voters.
In Madison, Wisconsin, County Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl said the time it will take to process voters next November “has at least doubled.” In Florida, 30 percent of voters in 2008 voted early. If that state’s law stands cutting the period in half, that mean perhaps an additional 15 percent of the states’ voters will have to be processed on Election Day, doubling waiting times at peak hours. Meanwhile, as states have to spend millions to produce new voter identification documents, that will cut into promotional messages alerting voters about changes in the process.
And Where Is Obama’s Justice Department?
The biggest variable that may curtail or blunt these various voter suppression tactics is Justice Department taking any number of steps to reject laws limiting or complicating the right to vote in the 16 states covered by the federal Voting Rights Act – which are mostly in the Old South. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a major speech last week in Texas where he criticized the laws aimed at discouraging voters and suppressing votes.
However, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Obama has not been very assertive in protecting voting rights. In its first two years, it filed fewer lawsuits than the administration of George W. Bush. While it has the power under the Voting Rights Act to reject many of the draconian laws passed by some of the biggest states – notably Texas and Florida – it has yet to do so and the 2012 political season is about to begin.
“The Justice Department plays a very important role,” said Advancement Project’s Lieberman. “Not only are they required to clear new voting laws in states that are subject to this pre-clearance requirement, generally 16 states in the South, but they also have the ability to bring affirmative lawsuits in any state under Section Two of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits laws that have a discriminatory impact on voting. They can also intervene in other lawsuits alleging constitutional violations.”
The attorney general’s speech last week decried many of the new hurdles to voting. But civil rights lawyers want action – not words – and are nervous about the Department’s reticence to act. Last week, the Advancement Project delivered 120,000 petitions to Attorney General Holder urging the DOJ to do just that: enforce these federal voting laws.
In the meantime, the very people targeted by Republicans – racial minorities, young voters, the working poor, the elderly and people with disabilities – should not take any chances. They should get their identity papers in order, be sure to register before state deadlines, and look for online tools to find polling places. In other words, they need to know and assert their voting rights, because the system may not help them in 2012.
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of “Count My Vote: A Citizen’s Guide to Voting” (AlterNet Books, 2008).