Voter Suppression 101

As campaigns gear up, citizens are starting to pay attention to the upcoming election, wondering which Republican will be the nominee or figuring out where candidates stand on the issues important to them. Yet the most important thing that American voters should do is figure out the new restrictions on their eligibility to vote in the next election. Throughout the country, Republicans have passed harsh and unjust voter restrictions that will make it more difficult for millions of people to vote, and indeed, might have already decided the election a year before it takes place.

A recent New York Times report catalogues the new voting restrictions that have been passed throughout the country this year. Wisconsin, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have passed laws requiring voters to bring a government-issued photo ID to the polling booth. The Brennan Center for Justice has estimated that these measures will impact 3.2 million voters, and it is likely that the voters without identification will be poor and minority voters.

The measures have been passed with the stated purpose of combating voter fraud. The theory is that stricter laws will make voter fraud more challenging and thus less likely. Yet it is hard to take this argument seriously, given the impartial data that shows how rare voter fraud is: South Carolina’s Election Commission told the New York Times that they know “of no confirmed cases of voter identification fraud, defined as a person presenting himself to vote as someone he is not.” A five-year effort from the Justice Department from 2002 to 2007 found “virtually no evidence of any sustained effort to skew federal elections.” In a democracy of over 100 million voters, there will be cases when isolated individuals make errors in voting, but these are trivial statistical occurrences that do not merit a serious increase in voter restrictions.

Surveys show that voters think that fraud is a common occurrence, but studies and data show that this is a case in which popular conception is far removed from reality. Any politicians, Republican or Democrat, who argue that voter fraud is common should not be taken seriously if they do not have any substantial evidence to back up their assertions.

The vast majority of these new voter restrictions are passed by Republican state legislatures, and it is no coincidence that the voters that are disenfranchised by these laws are poor, minority, and disabled voters, also known as the Democratic base. To get a sense of the tangible impact of the laws, 21 million Americans do not have government-issued photo identification. This includes 25 percent of African-American voting-age citizens, as opposed to eight percent of white citizens, and 15 percent of voters earning less than $35,000, “more than twice” as many as citizens who earn more than $35,000.

These laws go against the fundamental foundations of our democracy, and the idea that every citizen should easily be able to have their say in an election. They are also clearly unconstitutional. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of Indiana’s new voter identification law. In his dissent, Justice Souter discussed the various costs associated with obtaining the technically free government-issued photo identification. These included transportation costs (and associated loss of work salary) for citizens who most likely would not have cars and the financial costs associated with obtaining a birth certificate or passport, burdens that would weigh disproportionately on the poor and immobile.

When combined with the fact that there was no “shred of evidence” that “voter impersonation [was] a problem in the state,” Souter argued that “the law imposes an unreasonable and irrelevant burden on voters who are poor and old.” The Supreme Court ruled in1966 that poll taxes are unconstitutional because they violate the 14th Amendment, and these new voter identification laws, with sizable associated costs, are, for all practical purposes, poll taxes.

The Obama Administration has belatedly started to fight these laws in court, but given the increasingly conservative leanings of the federal judiciary and the fact that there are only 10 months before voting will start in earnest for 2012, it is unclear whether their legal efforts will be successful. Poor, minority, and disabled voters will have to make extraordinary efforts to be vigilant and prepare to vote in 2012, because otherwise Republicans will have succeeded in disenfranchising them, suppressing their votes and voices, and deciding the election before a single ballot is cast.

Ravi N. Mulani ’12, a Crmson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House.

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