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Justice Department Poised for Right to Vote Suits?

Neal Peirce / Dec 10 2011

For Release Sunday, December 11, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON — Is the Justice Department poised for a counterattack on the sweeping wave of photo identification and related voter restriction laws that newly-Republican-controlled state legislatures have been grinding out this year?

Opponents of the laws are hoping so, awaiting a major speech on voting rights that Attorney General Eric Holder delivers in Austin on Dec. 13.

The stage was set Dec. 1 by Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, addressing a American Constitution Society forum. Florida, South Carolina and Texas, Perez said, would “bear a burden of showing” that their new photo I.D. laws “are not intentionally discriminatory and have a retrogressive effect” in assuring a broad right of all Americans to vote.

Perez noted that judicial decisions spanning a century have identified the right to vote as “preservative of all rights.” He called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and companion statutes “the crown jewels” of American participatory democracy, “a sacred trust” to be protected.

So now is the time for broad action, if Holder chooses to take it. Reports of actual fraud in today’s U.S. elections are extraordinarily rare. Nevertheless, legislatures across the country have passed an array of restrictive statutes that may disenfranchise as many as 5 million Americans, according to estimates by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

The new curbs arguably represent the most serious efforts to exclude Americans from voting since the Jim Crow wave of anti-black voter suppression laws that Southern states enforced from the 1870s until the 1960s.

The new photo ID requirements for voting lead the list. Six states suddenly passed them this year — Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The total would be 11 if Democratic governors in Montana, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Missouri had not vetoed similar laws passed by Republican-dominated legislatures.

Middle class citizens normally consider the photo ID laws reasonable (and polls show they enjoy broad support). But what the rest of us forget is that life at the economic edge, or in youthful years, presents challenges. A 2006 survey by the American Research Corp. showed that 25 percent of African-Americans, 18 percent of senior citizens, and 18 percent of 18-to-24 year-olds don’t have photo IDs. In Wisconsin, a separate survey showed 78 percent of young blacks (aged 18-24) lack a driver’s license.

The Brennan Center cites the case of Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year old African-American woman in Tennessee who was denied a free ID card and told she couldn’t vote at her polling place, as she had for elections over 75 years, because the names on her birth certificate didn’t match the married names on her registration cards.

Students also face barriers: the South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee laws explicitly disallow student ID’s as acceptable identification. Wisconsin effectively does the same. But Tennessee and Texas do allow concealed handgun permits to vote.

Many of the voter ID measures, critics note, are based on model bills circulated to legislators by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a heavily conservative non-profit organization funded by such corporations as Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobile, AT&T, Pfizer and Koch Industries.

Critics charge that the motive is appallingly obvious: to restrict voting by minorities and youth more likely to vast votes for liberal candidates and causes.

And the ID laws are just part of the picture. “Proof of citizenship” laws (requiring, for example, a birth certificate or naturalization papers) have been passed by Alabama, Kansas and Arizona. At least 7 percent of Americans lack this proof, the Brennan Center estimates.

Then there are new Texas and Florida laws to curb registration drives that typically add thousands of African-Americans and Hispanics to voter rolls. The Florida law carries such extreme penalties for any process error that the League of Women voters has withdrawn its entire registration program there.

Lawmakers in Ohio and Maine voted to end same-day voter registration — a key tool to increase participation. (Maine voters promptly overturned the law.) Yet there’s still another new barrier: five states shortened early voting times, including eliminating the Sunday before election day, known as a key date to mobilize black voters.

All these pile on top of pre-existing state laws disallowing felons, even with sentences completed, from voting. In Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia the ban is for life. Nationwide, 13 percent of black men have lost the right to vote — seven times the national average. The bans are clearly vengeful if not racist: society’s real interest is to bring felons back into the responsibilities of full citizenship.

The Justice Department lacks authority to curb all the nation’s voter suppression laws. But even a selection of new suits would telegraph a vital message: that free and unencumbered voting is sacred, and that after 222 years of nationhood we’re finally ready to defend the rights of all our citizens.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Posted December 10, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    What about efforts by charitable grouops and others to encourage ALL people to obtain drivers’ licenses or other photo identification? Why not urge the church groups to endorse the concept of photo IDs? What about using photo identification as a precursor to Medicare/Medicaid use? Let’s take the sting out of the rules by getting everyone to have a photo ID. Let’s not conclude that, if a Republican legislature likes it, the Photo ID must be nefarious, anti-American, and worthy of marshaling the huge prosecutorial powers of the Federal Attorney General to pursue an apparent political pursuit.

  2. Mary DeWolf
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    1. The family Bible with births written used to be acceptable. Some of my relatives born in the nineteenth century relied on that.
    2. A problem for folks without an ID is the distance required to travel to a specified state office to get one.

  3. Sandra L Streifel
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    The reason that these laws cannot be overlooked and their results just ameliorated somewhat by volunteer efforts to assist the huge numbers of people who are being disenfranchised is this: these laws are purported to solve a problem that has not been proven to exist on more than a miniscule scale–voter fraud–yet just the groups of voters least likely to vote Republican are being excluded by these laws. The other red flag is not which legislatures approved these laws, but that the laws were all drafted by a far-right think tank: ALEC.

  4. Darrell Marcy
    Posted December 10, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful article Neal. Why is it even allowed to exclude anyone of voting age to vote? Why should any state, county or municipality even try to limit voting rights? If you’re a person, why not be allowed to vote on voting day, wherever you happen to be that day?

    This is just a result of people that don’t believe in democracy. Those are the same people that don’t believe in equality.

    You’re righ, it is a throwback to Jim Crow, a cultural and spiritual throwback. It’s like Southern, white, racists of that era who wanted to think to themselves, “I maybe a poor dirt farmer but hey, at least I’m better than a black man.” Now, some folks want to be able to think, hey I’m not in the 1%, but at least I can lord it over someone who is too poor to have a car, or a stable address, or to be able to buy their way out of prison.

    It’s a result of a simple tendency of humans to want to feel superior to somebody else. This tendency has to be fought internally, and constantly. Many people never reach this level of consciousness. That’s why laws like this appeal to them so much.

    I say lets go to the ink-well system, where you stick your thumb in an ink-well to show you’ve voted that day.

  5. arnold long
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Photo ID will reduce the distortion of votes as per the US slogan “vote early vote often”.
    When you have 95% plus turn out you may have a democracy in the US but the voting system is sadly lacking in robustness, with each area drawing up its own papers the governor choosing to disallow postal votes .. the list or irregularities is long and is also a blot on the US presenting itself as a democracy. What % of eligible voters supported Jimmy Carter ? Why not copy the Australian Electoral commission which runs all union, local state and federal elections and is so widely respected for its integrity.

  6. Sharla Lee
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Would we be proud of a system where voters chose our leaders based on who was best-looking or tallest or had a particular skin tone? Of course not. We think of the ideal system as being one where reasonably-informed voters designate the best person for the position and the final decision goes to the majority. But we don’t have that system either. We do have a system that the dead have literally voted and voted often, that voters will accept even token gifts in exchange for their vote, that groups of disinterested people can be bused to cast votes as asked, that some register multiple times in multiple locations at the last minute, and that tolerates armed individuals outside polling locations confronting those they don’t think will vote as desired. There are individuals and groups that will attempt to subvert the results toward their own interests. Is that a tiny, insignificant percentage as you contend that would have no effect on the results, not even in some of the incredibly close races we have seen both nationally and locally? So when a legislature looks to actually reach the ideal system of voters voting that have an actual right to do so, you ascribe their intentions to only being conservative and wanting to disenfranchise blocs that might vote liberal, even when they use taxpayer money to issue free ID’s. We are not likely to reach the ideal system–and that doesn’t mean we quit trying–but to cast aspersions on any that try–and to leave open the voting system to fraud and abuse, to actually encourage it by not protecting the system–is not a voting system many of us want. You seem happy to point to ALEC as being conservative minded but you never mention that the George Soros-backed Brennan Center is equally liberal, if not more so. Fraud does occur and it can steal a tight election, yet you offer no solutions to prevent it. You essentially say accept it in the name of universal suffrage.

  7. Dan Lynch
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Dear Mr. Peirce, your article is very interesting. I find myself on the opposite side of the issue, maybe because I am a conservative American and want to insure that every vote is a legitimate vote. You make a good case for citizens like Dorothy Cooper but fail to mention the senate race in mid-America where hundreds of votes are “discovered” tipping the election to one candidate over another. Or the person I met that votes in Virginia and votes absentee in Florida. I chuckled as I read “Reports of actual fraud in today’s U.S. elections are extraordinarily rare.” If people don’t have to prove who they are, how can we know if it is a fraudulant vote or not?

    Most of us share your belief that voting is the “crown jewel” of our republic. As we see in Russia, Putin can steal an election and remain in power. The process of election of our leaders must be protected to insure that each qualified citizen’s vote is counted once and that unqualified people cannot vote. Wouldn’t you agree with that statement? Getting a picture ID is more the problem than producing it at the election booth. I would focus my attention on that issue rather playing the race card. The belief is that the undocumented alien and so called “disenfranchised” American has a propensity to vote Democratic. It is therefore, theoretically, in the best interest of the Democratic party to allow anyone to vote, entitled to or not. It is in the best interest of the Republican party to protect the sacred trust to those who have earned the right to participate by being a qualified citizen. Felons serve their time because they are criminals and do not earn a right to full citizenship after they are released. This is the law. If you want the right to vote don’t harm your fellow citizen by breaking the law. Recidivism rates are extremely high so I’d give them the right to vote if they can stay clean for an additional 10 years after the end of their sentence.

    My, you must have touched a nerve with your article. Well done! That is what political debate should do.

    Dan Lynch, PhD.
    Chesterfield, VA

  8. Donald Milbrand
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I find the use of the term ‘voter restriction’ inaccurate and misleading. Asking for an ID is not a restrictive measure; it is an effort in ‘voter verification’. The argument that some groups are less likely to have an ID is irrelevant and does not support the theory that these laws are meant to restrict these groups. Everyone has the same access to a state photo ID for those who do not have a driver’s license. The right to vote is a fundamental right in the US. I think it is equally wrong to exclude a person from voting as it is to allow the negation of a legal vote by fraud. It is the duty of legislatures to try to ensure neither happens. (New Hampshire resident)

  9. Sharla Lee
    Posted December 15, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    The more I think about this article, the more disappointed I become. Especially as I see more and more of the same exact points being read from Democratic Party “press releases.” There is no journalism here, there is no fairness in reporting, no presenting both sides of an issue, and–more importantly–nothing to do with planning or making cities better.

    The worst parts of a political press release, where straw men arguments are proffered and character assassination is the norm, all are repeated and channeled above!

    New Haven, Connecticut, Mayor John DeStefano plans to ask the state Legislature to allow illegal immigrants who live in the city to vote.

    Seriously? You and the Democratic Party are now prepared to argue that we ignore any voter fraud and allow anyone that arrives at a voting location to cast his vote if he’ll just wear a purple thumb for a few days?

    Your points exactly match those released by the AFL-CIO.
    Yet the unions require picture ID’s of their members to vote:

    Very, very disappointed.