By Jon Green
Whatever you feel politically, it means nothing if you can’t vote. Representative democracy can only function if the desires of the populace are reflected in electoral outcomes. But this basic premise of our society is being called into question by a systematic attack on voting rights in America designed to skew elections for the benefit of one group over another. Forget whether or not you think homosexuals should be allowed to get married and forget about who you think can solve our economic problems: if we don’t work to make our democracy democratic again, none of those opinions will matter.
Voter registration is a basic barrier to entry in our voting system. An artifact from the agrarian aristocracy that American democracy was in the 1800s, voter registration was introduced as a way to keep poor farmers and freed slaves from voting. America remains one of the only industrialized democracies in which the burden of voter registration falls upon the citizen rather than the state. Voting is a right, but Americans must take prohibitive steps to secure that right. However, many don’t: in 2008, the Census Bureau found that the number of people who wanted to vote but missed a voter registration deadline, incorrectly filled out their voter registration form, or did not have the resources or information to register exceeded Barack Obama’s margin of victory.
Laws regarding voting are also under the jurisdiction of the states, which made the 2010 “Republican Wave” even more monumental. Republicans gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives in last year’s midterm elections, but they gained over 650 seats in state legislatures across the country. The party of small government has used these advantages to impose the most intrusive and stringent restrictions on voting rights since the Jim Crow era. The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report detailing the effects of these restrictions:
- “These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012”
- “The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012” (emphasis added, note that this does not include states that are currently considering similar legislation)
- “Of the 12 likely battleground states…five have already cut back on voting rights, and two more are currently considering new restrictions.”
These laws will have the greatest impact on poor, minority, and young voters, all of whom generally vote against Republican candidates.
Several states have passed photo ID laws making it difficult to vote for the 11 percent of residents of those states who do not have photo ID. However, the greatest effects of these laws will be through attacks on voter registration and other activities that take place prior to Election Day. In Florida, voter registration forms must now be turned in within 48 hours of completion and time-stamped to the minute for verification. Along with Wisconsin, Florida also passed a law making it more difficult for people who move to stay registered to vote. Maine eliminated its decades-old policy of Election Day Voter Registration. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have also restricted the time periods for early and absentee voting. Finally, Florida and Iowa repealed existing legislation that made it easier for felons to restore their voting rights, effectively preventing these citizens to vote again.
These laws are being passed under the auspices of “protecting elections against voter fraud.” But when the Bush Administration tried to “crack down” on voter fraud, only 86 convictions were made nationwide in a five-year period, 30 of which were for vote-buying in local elections, which is not preventable through ID restrictions. It is questionable that a photo ID requirement or limited access to registration would have prevented the other 56. Republicans nationwide have solved a problem that doesn’t exist with the same big-government intrusion they frequently deride as evil and inefficient.
The causal story presented by the GOP to justify these laws doesn’t make any sense. Ten extra votes do far less damage to our democracy than five million suppressed votes. It is apparent that these laws have nothing to do with protecting the vote, and instead intend to rig the vote. The Republican Party is increasingly becoming old and white, two demographics that are shrinking as a proportion of the electorate. The only way the GOP can remain viable is to either begin to represent the rest of us, or ensure that people who aren’t “like them” vote in smaller numbers. It is painfully clear which path they are taking.