The conservative extravaganza in Tampa has been overshadowed by controversy over voter-identification measures taken in some GOP-controlled states. Texas, for example, now regards a concealed weapon license as a legitimate form of identification, but refuses student identification cards. Seemingly limited reforms might radically change the outcome of the upcoming US election.
A study published in 2011 by the Brennan Centre for Justice examined in great detail the extent and purpose of bills introduced and laws passed across the United States, purportedly designed to tackle rampant voter fraud through compelling voters to present government-issued identification at the polls before they can register or vote. Since the beginning of 2011 25 such laws and two executive actions have passed through the legislatures of nineteen US states that have been labelled by the Brennan Centre and left-leaning politicians as ‘restrictive’. Advocates of their introduction, who in large part are Republican, claim that the laws are necessary in order to ensure a fair and balanced presidential election in November 2012.
Whilst it is enticing (particularly during an election cycle that has been rather charged with a viciously partisan energy) to resist jumping to an extreme conclusion, it seems increasingly clear that what is truly motivating Republican-dominated legislatures across the US is a desire to suppress Democratic votes in order to lift Mitt Romney to victory. The forecast suggests that these changes could impede the ability of five million eligible American citizens to vote, most affecting those who do not possess, are unable to come by, or would find it difficult to acquire the requisite identification; but more than this, the changes are predicted to prevent five million American citizens who are constituents of minorities that register their votes traditionally in large numbers for Democratic candidates.
Recent increases in the quantity of restrictive bills making it through state legislatures and into state law correlates directly with a dramatic nationwide GOP electoral upswing. A rise in the number of seats creaking under Republican weight saw the party regain control of both legislative chambers in 26 states in 2011. Subsequently, bills restricting voter activity unprecedentedly became commonplace campaign issues in Republican-controlled states.
Voter registration procedures are amongst the hardest hit. Registration drives are community-based efforts to encourage citizens to register their intention to vote. In Florida, a state which has been leading the charge in restrictive legislation for many years, 62.7 percent of all new registered voters in the 2004 election had been registered through community drives. African-American citizens, Hispanic citizens, female voters, and voters within the 18-24 age bracket are the four groups most likely to register through drives; all voted by overwhelming majorities (95 percent of African-Americans; 67 percent of Hispanics) for Barack Obama in 2008. Bills attempting to limit registration drive activities through red tape congestion have so far been brought to the legislatures of seven states, including California, Illinois, and North Carolina.
Such bills have been passed into law in Florida and Texas already. In some states the new restrictions impose jail time on registration drive hosts for turning in their forms beyond the deadline, or if the forms are improperly completed. These measures have had the effect of reducing the number of registration drive organisers: the League of Women Voters, one of the largest national registering organisations, has opted out of registration activity in the state of Florida altogether.
Barriers have also been erected to make the physical act of registering a vote a much more awkward process. Early voting, the provision by states of opportunities for voting before Election Day, has been an invaluable electoral mainstay for many years. It is attractive for prospective voters because of its convenience; more simply put, voters can choose from a greater range of times and days on which to vote. In the 2008 election, more than one third of citizens registered their votes early, an increase of close to five times the rate recorded at the 2000 election. The casting of early votes, normally during the two weeks preceding the election, is primarily a popular activity amongst the African-American voting population, particularly during weekends when many voting communities visit the polls in large groups after church services.
The Ohio and Florida Republican legislatures have been regularly accused of purposefully targeting suppression of the African-American vote in their conduct of legislative onslaughts against early and weekend voting. The Palm Beach Post recently reported that although the Supreme Court has struck down Florida’s decision to reduce the number of available early voting days by nearly half in five of its counties, in the remaining 62 the rules will still apply for the presidential election. African-American and Hispanic voters use early voting opportunities more frequently than any other group: in the 2008 general election, 33.2 percent of early Florida voters who cast ballots on the last Sunday before the election were African-American, whilst 23.6 percent were Hispanic.
In Ohio meanwhile, early Sunday voting has been eliminated entirely, whilst in an ongoing legal dispute, the Democratic party is challenging Ohio’s elimination of the last three days of its early voting period. In the 2008 election, they argue, 93,000 votes were cast during those three days; in 2004, Bush defeated Kerry in Ohio by just under 120,000 votes, meaning the elimination of this small period has the potential to significantly affect the election’s outcome. Tellingly, neither Ohio nor Florida (nor any of the other nine states who debated similar bills) have provided any reasons why Sunday specifically has been targeted.
Students, another social group that traditionally favour Democrats (and who supported Obama by a large majority in 2008), have also been widely affected. Obama was carried to his first term thanks to the support of 50 percent of College graduates, 52 percent of High School graduates, and 58 percent of postgraduate students. The reality that Texas regards a concealed weapon license as a legitimate form of identification but refuses student identification cards has been touted as a deliberate move to exclude certain groups who are more likely to vote against the Republicans.
Perhaps the largest group to have been affected by restrictive legislation are those citizens who hold criminal convictions. Four of the 5.3 million American citizens ineligible to vote due to felonies have completed their sentences. The entrenched racism of the American prison system is well-documented, and it should therefore be no surprise that African-Americans (who as a community are almost entirely pro-Democratic) are again disproportionately affected: according to the Brennan Centre, 13 percent of African-American men cannot vote as a result of past felonies committed, a rate that is seven times the national average.
Although the data tends to support the conclusion that pro-Democratic voters are being targeted by non-Democratic lawmakers, advocates of restrictive legislation consistently deny the existence of a right-wing-sponsored, national conspiracy. There are, however, three main reasons why the apparent disadvantage at which Democratic voters are placed by much Republican-backed legislation should be regarded as more than just an unfortunate coincidence.
The first to consider is the conspicuous absence of a large or persistent American voter fraud problem that might justify such a deluge of legislation. The phrase ‘voter fraud’ itself is regularly misappropriated to contort reality in order to serve the achievement of political ends. ‘Voter fraud’ should only be used to reflect a conscious attempt to dishonestly participate in an election. Due to an increasing amount of semantic infidelity, the original meaning has been stretched to incorporate a number of electoral errors, including administrational error, technical faults, and typos; in other words, to incorporate innocent and inevitable clerical mistakes.
Even taking into account the new and improper meanings attached to the phrase, incidences of voter fraud are shockingly low. American elections simply do not seem to have a voter fraud problem of a size worth mentioning. According to a further Brennan Centre study, the Missouri polls in the 2000 and 2002 elections recorded a voter fraud rate of 0.0003 percent, a figure that amounts to four individual cases in the entire state. New Jersey’s polls for the 2004 presidential election recorded a double voting rate of 0.0002 percent, whilst a voter fraud rate of 0.000009 percent was recorded in New York in 2002 and 2004.
Although the rates themselves are already vanishingly small, undoubtedly the only possible answer to the question ‘how much voter fraud should we accept?’ (which legislation advocates often pose in their own defence) is none. But Republican lawmakers appear to have weighed their options and decided that the certain disenfranchisement of millions of Americans is an acceptable cost if by sustaining it, voter fraud rates can be reduced by perhaps a 100th or a 1000th of a percent; particularly if those Americans weren’t going to vote Republican anyway. This conclusion is logically and ethically absurd.
Secondly, a large number of comments made by Republicans who support the legislation would strongly suggest that Democratic voters are being deliberately targeted. These include William O’Brien, Republican Speaker of the House in New Hampshire, who told a group of Tea Partiers that he backed a law making it harder for students to register their votes because they didn’t have the life experience to know not to vote Democrat. The Republican House majority leader in Pennsylvania (where a voter ID bill was signed into law in March 2011) exclaimed that the new law was ‘going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania’.
Thirdly and finally, there is the blatant truth that Republican ideology is fundamentally incompatible with this sort of unnecessary government regulation. It is platitudinous to highlight that the defining principle of 21st century Republicanism is a fear-tinged aversion to extensive or avoidable government interference in society. Conservative critics traditionally claim that the left is chipping away at the ‘freedom’ (a phrase whose meaning has been diluted and cheapened by libertarians and the fringe Right in recent years) of ordinary Americans through, for example, improving national healthcare provisions. Notwithstanding the giant bureaucratic weight imposed on an electorate by a party defined by its dislike of large government, there is the extraordinary cost of the laws’ implementation and maintenance to consider; a cost that Republicans have uncharacteristically been asking their voters to shoulder in difficult fiscal times.
Could America truly be seeing Republican governors and congressmen across the nation supporting extremely costly, extensive government programmes of little value during the tenure of an administration they claim is wrecking their nation’s economy? Or in the states that have extensive prior experience in throwing up barriers to minority voters, and as the evidence shows us, is widespread and deliberate voter suppression alive and kicking in the US? Although the election has yet to be decided, many Republicans seem keen to make sure that if their constituents aren’t going to vote for their party, they aren’t going to vote at all.