By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — Republicans are waging the most concerted campaign to prevent or discourage citizens from exercising their legitimate voting rights since the Jim Crow days of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Four years ago, Democrats expanded American democracy by registering millions of new voters — mostly young people and minorities — and convincing them to show up at the polls. Apparently, the GOP is determined not to let any such thing happen again.
According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which keeps track of changes in voting laws, 22 statutes and two executive actions aimed at restricting the franchise have been approved in 17 states since the beginning of 2011. By the center’s count, an additional 74 such bills are pending.
The most popular means of discouraging those young and minority voters — who, coincidentally, tend to vote for Democrats — is legislation requiring citizens to show government-issued photo identification before they are allowed to cast a ballot. Photo ID bills have been approved by Republican-controlled legislatures in Alabama, Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, and by referendum in Mississippi. Only one state with a Democratic-controlled legislature — Rhode Island — passed a law requiring voters to produce identification, and it does not mandate a government ID with a photo. In Virginia, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has not decided whether to sign a voter ID bill the legislature sent to his desk.
In theory, what could be wrong with demanding proof of identity? In the real world, plenty.
As Republican strategists are fully aware, minorities are overrepresented among the estimated 11 percent of citizens who do not have a government-issued photo ID. They are also painfully aware that in 2008, President Obama won 95 percent of the African-American vote and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote. It doesn’t take a genius to do the math: If you can reduce the number of black and Latino voters, you improve the Republican candidate’s chances.
If photo ID laws were going to be the solution, though, Republicans had to invent a problem. The best they could come up with was The Menace of Widespread Voter Fraud.
It’s a stretch. Actually, it’s a lie. There is no Widespread Voter Fraud. All available evidence indicates that fraudulent voting of the kind that photo ID laws would presumably prevent — someone shows up at the polls and votes in someone else’s name — just doesn’t happen.
For a while, the GOP pointed to South Carolina, where Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said that “dead people” had somehow cast ballots in recent elections. But then the state’s election commission investigated claims of 953 zombie voters and, um, well, never mind.
The number of voters came from a crude comparison of records done by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. The elections commission actually found 207 contested votes. Of that total, 106 reflected clerical errors by poll workers, 56 reflected errors by the motor vehicles department, 32 involved people who were mistakenly listed as having voted, and three involved people who had cast absentee ballots and then died before Election Day.
That left 10 contested votes — count ‘em, 10 — that could not be immediately resolved. However, the commission found no evidence of fraud. Or of zombies.
Of course, there are other potential kinds of electoral fraud; crooked poll workers, for example, could record votes in the names of citizens who actually stayed home. Election officials could design ballots in a way that worked to a specific candidate’s advantage or disadvantage (see Florida, 2000). But none of this would be prevented by photo ID, which still hasn’t found a problem to solve — except, perhaps, an excess of Democratic voters.
Even more sinister are new laws, such as in Florida, that make it much more difficult for campaigns — or anyone else — to conduct voter-registration drives. Florida requires that groups conducting registration drives be vetted and that registration forms be submitted within 48 hours of when they are signed — an onerous and unnecessary burden that only serves to hamper anyone seeking to expand the electorate. Let’s see, who might try to do such a thing? The Democratic Party, maybe? The Obama campaign?
In the name of safeguarding the sanctity of the ballot, Republicans are trying to exclude citizens they consider likely to vote for Democrats — the young, the poor, the black and brown. Those who love democracy cannot allow this foul subterfuge to succeed.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.