A ballot box from the early 1870s. Credit: Smithsonian.
The key to democracy is voting. White colonists in America insisted on voting as the basis of government. But voting in America has always been limited. The Massachusetts Bay Puritans only let settlers vote who conformed to their religious doctrines. Only men could vote, with a few exceptions, until the twentieth century. African Americans were excluded from voting by slavery and the law, then by violence and local Jim Crow laws, until the 1960s. Eliminating voter discrimination required constitutional amendments, congressional legislation, and federal enforcement.
Throughout our history there have been other forms of discriminatory voting restrictions, serving local partisan purposes. In New York City in 1908, the Democratic administration tried to suppress the Jewish vote by picking Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, as voter registration days. They feared that many Jews would vote for socialists. The official justification was, of course, to prevent fraud.
In 2008, a number of attempts were made to limit access to the polls. Between January and October 2008, 666,000 Ohioans registered to vote, and 200,000 of them provided driver’s licenses or Social Security information that did not match government records, for example, in the spelling of their names. Five weeks before Election Day, the Ohio Republican Party asked a federal court to require the state to list all these people, so they could be purged or their votes challenged.
The Republican Party of Montana challenged the registrations of over 6,000 voters in 6 Democratic-leaning counties based on change of address information. Many were service members and students eligible to vote in Montana, who had their mail forwarded to where they were serving or going to school. The Republican Lieutenant Governor criticized these challenges. A federal judge found them frivolous.
This year, who can vote has become an even more contentious national discussion. Many state legislatures have passed laws requiring voters to show a government-issued ID. These state laws have much in common. Their proponents all allege that the purpose is to prevent voter fraud, even though there have been very few cases across the country which such an ID would prevent. ID laws create hardships for those who do not have a driver’s license, do not have easy access to birth records, cannot drive to distant government buildings to procure IDs, or have recently been registered. Such people are disproportionately poor, African American, or Hispanic; groups who tend strongly to vote for Democrats. The new laws were passed by Republican legislative majorities and signed by Republican governors.
Republicans say they are protecting democracy. But the partisan nature of these efforts peeks through. In June, the Pennsylvania House Majority leader, Mike Turzai, was videotaped at a Republican gathering saying that the new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Turzai’s comments produced loud applause.
Judges have not looked favorably on many of these laws. In July, Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge David Flanagan ruled that the new Wisconsin voter ID law was unconstitutional. Flanagan had been appointed by a Republican Governor.
In August, a federal court rejected the new Texas ID law. All three judges, two appointed by Democrats and one by George Bush, agreed that the law imposes “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor” and noted that minorities in Texas are more likely to live in poverty.
The number of voters who could be disenfranchised by strict voter ID laws is staggering. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 21 million Americans do not have current government-issued photo IDs. They are disproportionately African Americans, working poor, and students -- exactly the groups which won the 2008 election for Obama.
Laws about when voting may take place also affect who gets to vote. More than twenty states have sought to restrict early voting and Sunday voting. In Ohio early voting was greatly expanded in 2008, including Sunday voting. On the Sunday before Election Day many black congregations came out of church and went straight to the polls to vote for Obama. Republicans in Ohio then passed a law to restrict early voting, and eliminate Sunday voting, except for members of the military. Last week a federal judge ordered the previous rules reinstated.
One more method of distorting voting through partisan politics is in determining who is on the ballot. Gary Johnson is the Libertarian Party nominee for president. He was governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003. Republican party officials in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Oklahoma have tried to get Johnson’s name off the November ballot by mounting legal challenges to petition signatures.
Johnson is a Republican, and took part in the early Republican primaries. He is trying to appeal to libertarian-minded voters who had favored Ron Paul’s candidacy. Paul drew over 10% of the vote in 29 of the 40 Republican primaries. Sizable numbers of voters for Johnson in November could make the difference in the race between Romney and Obama. In August, the Republican secretary of state in Iowa rejected these challenges.
For years Democrats have tried to make voting easier. Republicans in many states are trying to restrict voting. The only bipartisan agreement about voting has been among judges and state officials who have struck down these laws as unconstitutional limitations on our most fundamental right.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 6, 2012.