Next Wednesday, September 12, The Century Foundation and Demos will co-host a panel discussion to mark the publication of The Politics of Voter Suppression, a new book by TCF Fellow Tova Andrea Wang.
The timing of this book could not be more important. “In 2011 there was an explosion of states passing highly restrictive requirements for voters,” Wang writes. “Foremost among these requirements was the demand that an eligible voter provide government-issued photo identification.”
With these new laws on the books, millions of voters may be prohibited from casting their ballot this year. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, one in ten eligible voters don't have government-issued photo identification—more than 21 million citizens. Half this number live in one of the eleven states that have passed restrictive voter ID laws, which means they must provide birth certificates or marriage licenses to apply for a “free” state photo ID. (The required documentation costs between $8 and $25—comparable to what the Jim Crow-era poll tax would cost in today's dollars.)
This may be impossible for the nearly 500,000 eligible voters who do not have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest ID-issuing office. Many of these offices have limited business hours and are open only a few days each week. Some, like the Wisconsin office open only on the fifth Wednesday of each month, are practically Kafka-esque. (Only four months in 2012 have a fifth Wednesday.)
In theory, voter ID laws are designed to combat voter fraud and restore confidence in elections. But according to the New York Times, there were only twenty-six convictions for election fraud between 2002 and 2005. Subsequent investigations at the state level have yielded estimates of voter fraud ranging from 0.0003% to just 0.000009% of the voting population.
The real reason for these laws, as Wang documents in her book, is politics. Although voter suppression used to be a bipartisan affair, Republicans have been behind nearly every effort to restrict voting in the last fifty years, ever since Richard Nixon's “Southern Strategy” traded minorities for the southern white vote.
It is no coincidence that these laws, passed by Republican legislatures, overwhelmingly affect constituencies that voted Democratic in the 2008 election, such as African Americans, Latinos, students, and people with low incomes. Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai admitted as much when he declared last month that voter ID “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
It's an effective strategy, too. The sixteen states that now have restrictive voting laws on their books (Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia) account for 214 electoral votes, nearly 80 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Eliminating (or successfully registering) even a few thousand eligible voters could be the difference between victory and defeat in key battleground states.
It is deeply troubling that in 2012, in the United States of America, we are still having a debate about whether voter suppression is an acceptable election-year strategy. For Wang, any legal effort to increase the number of Americans involved in the electoral system is a net benefit for democracy. Recent efforts to politicize that process—such as the Texas legislature that this year made concealed-handgun licenses acceptable voter ID, but not state university IDs—should be rejected as baldly undemocratic.