In the 2008 presidential election, large numbers of voters that had not previously made strong showings at the polls came out to cast their ballots. African Americans, Latinos, women and students showed up in record numbers. But since 2011, a number of states have aggressively pursued and passed new voter-identification laws, also called voter-suppression laws, which have created new barriers that mainly target these groups and may keep a large number of voting-eligible citizens away from the polls.
Generally, these laws require a person to show state-issued or approved identification before being able to vote, or even register to vote.
On the surface, requesting identification from a voter at the polls sounds harmless. However, many states are requiring that the identification be state-issued, such as a driver’s license or passport, which a significant number of voters do not have.
Photo identification is another aspect of such laws, because states are also trying to change registration requirements. Registrants are being required to bring proof of citizenship, such as birth certificates or passports that many people don’t possess and that can be cost-prohibitive. If they don’t have a copy of their birth certificate, obtaining one can be lengthy process that requires significant fees. This can create a circular effect since they need a copy of a birth certificate to get an ID, but they need ID to apply for a copy of a birth certificate in some states.
These laws also exclude forms of photo identification that have been used in the past, such as school or work identification.
According to information from the ACLU website, 15 states currently have passed new voter I.D. legislation, three states have laws pending, and one has been reversed by the courts (http://www.aclu.org/maps/voter-suppression-measures-passed-2011).
Currently, some of these states are being challenged in the federal courts as being in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act gives the U.S. Department of Justice oversight or “pre-clearance,” particularly over those states that have historically challenged voter’s rights, such as Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Virginia. If pre-clearance is denied, then a state can sue in return, causing long-term litigation between the state and federal levels. Most recently the Department of Justice has intervened in Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Many states are trying to challenge the validity of the Voting Rights Act to determine whether it is constitutional.
“The NAACP is actively litigating against voter-suppression laws in Texas, Florida, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and has had success litigating a lawsuit in Wisconsin, where the voter I.D. law has been invalidated for the upcoming election in November,” according to Jokata Eaddy, NAACP senior director of the Voting Rights Initiative.
A number of groups are being affected. Women, who may change names when they marry, can be challenged when a birth certificate doesn’t match a married name. Also, according to Eaddy, “Pennsylvania says specifically that an I.D. must have an expiration date, which targets the youth vote, making school campus I.D.s no longer valid to use for voting in the state.
“Under Pennsylvania’s I.D. law, 800,000 people in the state do not have the I.D. needed to register,” she said. “Republican Gov. Tom. Corbett said that only 2 percent would be affected, but the margin of victory in the last election for that state was 600,000 voters.”
Many states such as Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina are also trying to eliminate early voting opportunities. Many churches in these states and others allow people to vote at their sanctuaries on the last Sunday before the actual election on Tuesday. Also known as “Souls to the Polls,” this provision allowed congregants to not miss work, be forced to wait in long lines, or have to arrange for child care, etc., and historically has been used in large number by African Americans.
The Brennan Center for Justice released a report in July 2012 called “The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification.” It says: “Eleven percent of eligible voters who lack the required I.D. must travel to a designated government office to obtain one, yet many citizens will have trouble making this trip. In the states currently with restrictive laws, nearly 500,000 do not have access to a vehicle and live more than a mile from an I.D.-issuing office open more than two days a week, and live in rural areas with dwindling public transportation.
Some 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest state I.D.-issuing office open more than two days a week. An estimated 1.2 million eligible Black voters and 500,000 Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from the nearest I.D.-issuing office. People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo I.D.”
If a driver’s license expires due to age, health, etc., and the holder does not apply for a state-sanctioned identification, they won’t be able to vote. There are large numbers of urban dwellers in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago who use the public transportation system as their sole means of transportation and may never have had state identification.
Some states have returned to disenfranchising people with felony convictions who previously were not disenfranchised, regardless of how long ago the conviction occurred, or whether the felony was a violent or a nonviolent crime. Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, and Iowa revoke voting privileges for life and are currently the only states to hold that mandate. All other states still have some degree of restriction. About 5.8 million people in the country are voting-eligible, but disenfranchised because of a criminal background and cannot vote. One million are in Florida alone.
Texas and Florida are the most adamant on disenfranchising those formerly convicted. Iowa is requesting people to attach a copy of a credit report to their registration to prove they are not in any trouble. In Florida, the previous governor, Charlie Crist, a Republican, issued an executive order to reinstate voting rights for those who had completed the terms of their sentence, including parole time, as part of their re-entry into society. That order was rescinded by the current governor Richard L. Scott, who also added a five-year waiting period after the completion of their sentence, regardless of probation or parole.
California recently revised its criminal code, which gives an option that people with nonviolent convictions get community-based supervision, not parole or probation. There is a current lawsuit, led by the ACLU, challenging whether such persons are voting-eligible. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has taken the position that they are not. Eighty thousand people will be affected by these new guidelines.
There were also restrictions attempted against third-party voter registrations, which means that groups such as the NAACP, the Urban League, the League of Women Voters, universities and churches that historically held voter-registration drives would be subject to strict fines for turning in registrations later than 48 hours after they were filled out, where previously it was a week, with fines of $500 to $1,000 per registration. These tactics, which on the face seemed arbitrary and meant to intimidate and discourage voters, were struck down by a judge.
The reasoning for putting these laws into place, say the states, is to prevent voter fraud. However, in Pennsylvania, which is also pushing for voter-identification laws, and the sponsor who backed the bill declared no evidence of fraud, nor did they think there would be voter fraud without this new law. Pennsylvania is also currently in litigation since there are an estimated 760,000 voter-eligible people who don’t have a state-sanctioned I.D., with a huge concentration in the city of Philadelphia.
Another argument being put forward by supporters of such laws is that everyone should have identification, because I.D. must be shown to open a bank account, use a credit card, or board a plane, among other things. But other agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) use various forms of I.D., and photo I.D. is not always requested for credit and debit cards, according to another source at the NAACP who declined to be named.
“This is a systematic attack on democracy,” states Eaddy of the NAACP. “Not only will this have a detrimental effect on people’s ability to affect their franchise in 2012, but it will have a detrimental effect on the ability of massive numbers of people to access the ballot box 10 to 20 years from now. When you start putting the pieces together, it is very clear that it is a clear agenda, a targeted agenda, a very coordinated agenda, and a very well-funded agenda meant to wholly gut democracy in this country and take mass numbers of people out of the voting booths.
It goes against every fiber of the NAACP and everything we’ve ever fought for, and shows a massive shift of control from progressive leadership to conservative leadership. Legislators regardless of what party they are in need to be pro-democracy.”
Some Republicans have stood up against the curtailing of voting rights. Michigan provides an excellent example. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed three pieces of voter-identification legislation. After the veto, new legislation was introduced by the state Legislature. A New Hampshire I.D. law was also vetoed by the Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat whose veto was also overridden by the state Legislature.
There are no voter-identification laws in the state of California, but Congresswoman Karen Bass of the 33rd Congressional District gave this advice: “Since we are just a few weeks away from the presidential election, we need to do everything we can to comply with the laws and make sure that our friends, relatives, and family in other states are aware of the laws and that we comply.
After the president is re-elected, then we can worry about changing the laws. Now is the time to comply. We should be outraged that we are still dealing with this in the 21st century. This was a battle that was put to rest in the 1960s. We should turn that outrage into an incredible organized outreach opportunity and make sure we double the vote.”
There are other resources that can be used by voters to learn about their state’s voter-identification laws. Kelly Ceballos, League of Women Voters communications director, advises using Vote411.org. “You enter your ZIP code and it will give you a registration form, information on your area’s election laws, what you need to vote, and what you need at the polls to be prepared to vote,” said Ceballos. “In many cases, depending on how well poll workers, many of whom are volunteers, may be trained, they may mistakenly think you are required to have a picture I.D., when other forms of identification are admissible.”
The NAACP’s Eaddy also recommends calling, 1 (866)-our-vote, which features lawyers answering real-time questions and addressing peoples’ concerns, if they feel they are being threatened at the polls or are told they can only vote a provisional ballot. “If people can only do one thing, they should turn out to vote; if they can do two things, they should turn out to vote and they should take action in their community to speak out against these attacks on voting rights in this country.”