As the campaigns for the 2012 presidential election begin, Republicans are trying to rig the rules. In 38 states, they are pushing measures that will effectively lock millions of the young, the poor, the elderly and minorities out of the election booth. This is the most systematic rollback of voting rights since the segregated South invented literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation to bar blacks from voting.
Their motivation is clear. Republicans are championing an agenda that they know lacks popular support — from lowering taxes on the rich to seeking to end Medicare as we know it. They have a stake in lowering voter turnout, not raising it. Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of the Moral Majority, used to warn Christians about what he called the “goo goo syndrome,” the good government types who wanted to make voting easier. “I don’t want everybody to vote;” he said in 1980. “Our leverage in elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
So Republican governors and legislators are introducing measures designed to curtail voting, particularly by constituencies likely to oppose their course. Their excuse is to combat voter fraud — but they have failed to produce any evidence that this poses any concern. Even when White House adviser Karl Rove pushed the Bush Justice Department to make voter fraud a focus, they could not dig up evidence of its existence. In a 2007 report, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice summarized the evidence: “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
As Nation reporter Ari Berman summarizes, a dozen states now have passed obstacles to voting, with more considering them. They are requiring proof of citizenship for registration; they put groups seeking to register voters at legal risk. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, on the books since 1973. Five states — Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia — cut short their early voting periods. Six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures — Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democratic — including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans.
This is the political equivalent of gamblers paying to shave points in a basketball game. If they canceled the game, or made one team forfeit, fans would object. So they rig the outcome by paying one player to feign injury or play badly. In presidential elections as close as those in 2000 or 2004, shaving a few percentage points off the turnout could make a determining difference.
Only we are not talking basketball here. We are talking about one party cynically erecting barriers to the fundamental right to vote. The real problem in American elections is too few people vote. Registration isn’t automatic. Early voting is limited; elections take place on a weekday when working people have a hard time getting to the polls. Republicans have no campaign to make voting more accessible.
This is the real Ponzi scheme that does injury to the American promise of fairness and equality.
The irony is those that are willing to declare war for democracy abroad are too willing to declare war against democracy at home.
We cannot survive such a global contradiction. The whole world is watching and it must see the attorney general and Department of Justice take on a higher profile to protect voting rights.
Their targets are apparent. Ohio and Florida, with conservative Republican governors, banned early voting on the Sunday before the election, the day when black churches often provide assistance for their congregations to vote. Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott disenfranchised more than 97,000 ex-felons and prohibited another 1.1 million prisoners from being allowed to vote after serving their time. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry signed “emergency legislation” that makes a concealed weapon permit an acceptable voter ID but disqualifies a student ID. Wisconsin’s infamous Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation that allowed students to vote only with an ID that included information that no college ID currently provides. More than 200,000 students in Wisconsin may be disqualified from voting as a result.
It is time for the Justice Department to rouse itself. It is time for citizens to mobilize.