WASHINGTON — Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee debated the necessity of voter ID laws and early voting restrictions Wednesday morning, with Democrats accusing Republicans of aiming to suppress the votes of African-Americans and Hispanics.
The hearing was just over a month after many voters in Florida stood in line for nearly seven hours to cast their ballot in the presidential election, some eventually choosing to leave the line and not vote at all.
Democrats on the panel of witnesses contended that some of the current voting policies in place around the country disproportionately affect African-Americans, Latinos, senior citizens and the working poor.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., criticized what he called “politically motivated” efforts by the Republican Party, including voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting, which are “clearly designed to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters.”
One example cited was the elimination of access to early voting in Florida on the Sunday before the Tuesday election — a day that is historically used by many African-Americans and Hispanics to cast their votes.
But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the committee, argued that the efforts were “common-sense measures” introduced strictly to combat voter fraud, not to suppress the vote.
Asked about the extent of the problem of voter fraud in his state, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Republican, said he found only six voters who were ineligible to vote, but added that access to a citizenship database could likely make the task of finding ineligible voters easier.
Schultz said the challenge remains maintaining the balance between “voters’ rights and election integrity.”
Ken Bennett, Arizona’s Republican secretary of state, acknowledged that while it is a fundamental right for a citizen to be able to cast a ballot, it is also a person’s right to be assured that their vote is “not being canceled out” or being offset by someone who is not legally allowed to vote.
Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat in the South Carolina state legislature, whose district is 63 percent African-American, asked the committee to acknowledge the “history of racism and discrimination” that play a part in voter suppression laws.
For many voters, “an ID is something that is difficult to come by,” Cobb-Hunter said.Women who are divorced, for example, may find that they have to incur the expenses of going through a name-changing process before they will be allowed to vote.
Cobb-Hunter told the committee that many of her constituents are people who were born on farms, delivered by midwives, and as such their births are often recorded in the family Bible.
It’s “not a case of supporting fraud,” she said, but about the efforts and expenses it can take for a poorer person to get an ID.