Yesterday in Pennsylvania, a state judge allowed Pennsylvania’s strict voter identification law even though the state has stipulated that “there have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states.” The state is not even “aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.” Barring a successful appeal, the result is that as we approach the 2012 elections, less than three months away, perhaps as many as 758,000 Pennsylvanians who do not have the identification needed to vote will be disenfranchised. Just what is going on here? If the state is not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud, why the great push for voter identification?
As it turns out, the forces in play behind these new developments are not that new at all. At some point in our nation’s history, someone realized that it is not just how people vote that determines election outcomes, it is also who votes. Since its founding, our democracy has been made ever more robust through greatly expanding access to the ballot, but the past century and a half has also seen attempts by various actors to determine election results by suppressing votes among parts of the population, typically through poll taxes, literacy tests, identification requirements, and vote “caging”—using mass mailings to addresses in certain neighborhoods and looking at returned mail to determine which voters to challenge at the polls.
These tactics for limiting access to the ballot have at one time or another been employed by members of all political parties under the guise of “election reform,” but for the past fifty years or so, they have been practiced solely by supporters of the Republican party. And, in fact, we are seeing a resurgence in their use, as many state legislatures have added voter identification requirements and other measures to restrict voting to their election laws in recent years. While the public argument for these rules is typically made along the lines of protecting against voter fraud, in actuality the practice is a classic strategy of voter suppression, echoing past attempts to take away certain Americans’ right to vote.
1. In Today’s Headlines: Republicans say that voter fraud is rampant and Democrats are going to steal the election.
That’s Old News: In the nineteenth century, both parties perennially accused the other of trying to steal the election. Their goal? To enact “reforms” that would limit access to the ballot for citizens likely to vote for the opposing ticket. Today, the vast majority of voter suppression efforts are made by Republicans, and their hyperbole is certainly more caustic, and more importantly, it is patently false.
The tactic currently being used is exactly the same as it was more than one hundred years ago—a few examples of voter fraud are cited over and over again to make it seem like the problem is widespread, when the evidence actually indicates it isn’t. Furthermore, the examples given today are almost never about fraud at the polling place, something they claim is occurring across the country. And, the stories they tell are often ancient tales that upon further examination prove not to have involved fraud at all, but rather are the result of clerical errors.
In the old days, there actually was some vote fraud at the polls (though perhaps not as much as is believed, given the American mythology around that era). Today, voter fraud at the polling place really just does not happen. Study after study has shown this. Most recently, a nationwideanalysis by the reporting group News21 of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that “while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day . . . is virtually non-existent.”
2. In Today’s Headlines: People routinely commit fraud at the polling place, and their right to vote at the polls must be challenged.
That’s Old News: Both Democrats and Republicans engaged in discriminatory challenges at the polls at the turn of the nineteenth century, but Republican party operatives alone have continued to orchestrate “caging” and challenge operations targeting minority polling places on a nationwide basis since the early 1960s. The two biggest efforts were Operation Eagle Eye in 1964, a nationally coordinated effort to challenge the voting rights of 1.25 million voters all over the country; and, in 2004, a nationwide effort to challenge primarily Latino and African Americans’ voting rights on the flimsiest of bases.
Given that the Republican National Committee since 1982 has been under a court order not to pursue these tactics, this year the Republicans appear to have outsourced the caging and challenge operation to an outfit called True the Vote. Born of the Tea Party movement, the group has pledged to recruit one million volunteers to act as self-appointed policemen of the voting process at polls across the country.
3. In Today’s Headlines: To prevent fraud, we must require government-issued photo identification in order to vote.
That’s Old News: Requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls is a poll tax. In direct and indirect ways, voter identification laws impose financial and logistical burdens on some communities in particular, and are meant to deter those communities from voting.
At the turn of the twentieth century, many states had direct poll taxes. These were not monies collected at the polls, but rather were fees that were due to be paid at the county assessor’s office ahead of the election. This meant an extra trip during the day for workers—for poor blacks and whites alike—in addition to the financial burden of having to pay the tax. Sound familiar? Recent studies have shown that, under laws recently passed, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people must obtain the requisite identification in order to vote in 2012, tens of thousands of whom will need to take a day off work and travel at least several miles to apply at agency offices with limited hours and days of operation.
4. In Today’s Headlines: To prevent fraud, we must pass laws demanding documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote.
That’s Old News: In the late-nineteenth century, many states began disenfranchising immigrants through proof-of-citizenship requirements. In the states and cities where recent laws have imposed these requirements, only naturalized citizens had to present their papers to election officials before registering or voting. In 1888, the New York Herald detailed the disenfranchising impact this had in New Jersey:
5. In Today’s Headlines: States must purge the voter list of felons and noncitizens, as they are ineligible to vote.
That’s Old News: Many of us recall the purge of “felons” from the voter rolls in Florida in 2000 from a list that turned out to be egregiously flawed and served to disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters. In addition, however, the 1975 report from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on the Voting Rights Act singled out the ongoing problematic practice of purging voter rolls and deleting eligible voters in the process. The 1981 report documented continuing problems with purging and requiring re-registration. In the mid-1970s, the United States attorney general objected under Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act to purging and re-registration laws in Texas and Mississippi.
These practices led in part to the National Voter Registration Act that, among many other things, requires election administrators to follow certain procedures when “cleaning” the voter rolls, including banning such purging within 90 days of an election. In 2012, state elections officials are scrambling to purge their lists just before the election, using opaque matching rules and a variety of potentially flawed databases, claiming the rolls are full of noncitizens. Meanwhile, studies have shown that noncitizen registration is rare, and noncitizen voting even rarer. Noncitizen voting by those who knew it was impermissible is virtually nonexistent.
6. In Today’s Headlines: To prevent fraud, voter registration by community groups must be curtailed.
That’s Old News: Once the concept of voter registries was adopted in many of the states in the mid- to late nineteenth century, the dominant parties passed a number of measures to manipulate that registration process for desired ends. Tactics employed included requiring only voters in the cities to register; requiring in-person registration, only on very circumscribed days and at certain times; and requiring frequent re-registration, such as whenever the voter moved, even if it was just a few blocks away. Not coincidentally, it is marginalized communities who primarily register through registration drives conducted by community groups. As a result, all of these new rules disproportionately impact immigrants and the poor.
7. In Today’s Headlines: Senator Scott Brown (R- MA), says on August 8, 2012, “I want every legal vote to count, but it’s outrageous to use taxpayer dollars to register welfare recipients as part of a special effort to boost one political party over another,” objecting to the terms of the Massachusetts’ consent decree imposed on the state for noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act.
That’s Old News: The National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1993, but not without furious opposition from Republican members of the Senate, Republican governors, and President George H. W. Bush. One provision of the NVRA requires that public assistance agencies provide voter registration services to their clients. This was to counterbalance the provision requiring registration at departments of motor vehicles, which would be more likely to reach only the better off. It was this provision that infuriated Republicans. Indeed, many of them favored the law, but when the agency provision was included, they voted against it. Their claim? That it would lead to fraud.
The rhetoric was dramatic, much like Senator Brown’s. For example, Representative Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican, warned that the NVRA would register “millions of welfare recipients, illegal aliens, and taxpayer funded entitlement recipients,” somehow lumping all of these groups into the category of illegitimate voters. When South Carolina fought the measure in court, the Republican chairman of the South Carolina Election Commission, Rusty DePass, said his party opposed the measure because “we all know who’s on welfare… . We all know who those people vote for.”
8. In Today’s Headlines: Early voting days, hours, and locations must be reduced.
That’s Old News: Early voting is a recent phenomenon, and we know that African Americans in the last election cycle in particular disproportionately made use of it. However, the curtailment of voting opportunities for minority communities is nothing new. The 1981 U.S. Civil Rights Commission noted that election administrators moved polling places away from black voters to more distant locations, leading to objections by the Department of Justice in several states. Until the passage of the NVRA, in-person registration was still ordinarily required; there would be only one registration office in an entire county, with limited hours; and there would be no such offices in minority neighborhoods.
The tactics this year are just as blatant. Florida has specifically cut out the last Sunday before the election—the day that African American churches t have used to get members out to vote en masse in recent elections. In Ohio, attempts to curtail early voting statewide has led to the incredible result that early voting stations in Ohio’s heavily Democratic (and minority) counties will only be open between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., while those in Republican counties will allow voting on nights and weekends.
9. In Today’s Headlines: People who have a prior felony conviction should never be allowed to vote.
That’s Old News: Laws disenfranchising felons and ex-felons, many passed post-Reconstruction, were sometimes designed with the purpose of disenfranchising African American voters, and often were implemented to do so. By 1920, almost every state had a law on the books disenfranchising men who had been criminally convicted of something. In most parts of the country, the laws applied only to those who had committed a felony, but in the South, the laws at the turn of the century specifically targeted violations that African Americans were thought by politicians to be more likely to be found guilty of.
Republicans overwhelmingly reject providing voting rights for ex-felons who have served their time—of which there are millions, disproportionately African American, Latino, and poor. Some politicians have stated blatantly the partisan interest in maintaining felon disenfranchisement laws. “‘As frank as I can be,’ said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors in 2003, ‘we’re opposed to [restoring voting rights after completion of sentence] because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.’”
Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has persistently opposed federal legislation extending the right to vote in federal elections to all former felons who had completed their sentences. “‘States have a significant interest in reserving the vote for those who have abided by the social contract,’ Senator McConnell explained. ‘Those who break our laws should not dilute the vote of law abiding citizens.’” At the same time, we know that McConnell would have likely lost a tightly contested 1984 U.S. Senate race if it weren’t for Kentucky’s ban on voting by former felons.
Most recently, Republican governor Rick Scott of Florida last year reversed the reforms of his predecessor, forcing any former felon who wanted to regain voting rights to appeal directly to the governor after a several-year waiting period. In Iowa, the new Republican governor also rescinded the executive order of his predecessor, making it a nightmare process for an ex-felon to regain his right to vote.
Learn more about Tova Wang’s new Century Foundation book, The Politics of Voter Suppression (Cornell University Press.)