For Release Sunday, December 11, 2011
© 2011 Washington Post Writers Group
WASHINGTON — 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 email@example.com.
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