GOP war on voting: a strategy for voter suppression

A big investigative piece in the New York Times today by Steve Yaccino and Lizette Alvarez, Measures by G.O.P. Aim to Limit Voting in Swing States:

Voting-RightsPivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing significant new electoral restrictions on registering and voting that go beyond the voter identification requirements that have caused fierce partisan brawls.

The bills, laws and administrative rules — some of them tried before — shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote.

Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin this winter pushed through measures limiting the time polls are open, in particular cutting into weekend voting favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election.

Democrats in North Carolina are scrambling to fight back against the nation’s most restrictive voting laws, passed by Republicans there last year. The measures, taken together, sharply reduce the number of early voting days and establish rules that make it more difficult for people to register to vote, cast provisional ballots or, in a few cases, vote absentee.

In all, nine states have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013. Most have to do with voter ID laws. Other states are considering mandating proof of citizenship, like a birth certificate or a passport, after a federal court judge recently upheld such laws passed in Arizona and Kansas. Because many poor people do not have either and because documents can take time and money to obtain, Democrats say the ruling makes it far more difficult for people to register.

Voting experts say the impact of the measures on voter turnout remains unclear. Many of the measures have yet to take effect, and a few will not start until 2016.

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Republicans defend the measures, saying Democrats are overstating their impact for partisan reasons. The new rules, Republicans say, help prevent fraud, save money and bring greater uniformity to a patchwork election system.

Bullshit! Just a few weeks ago the Presidential Commission on Election Administration recommended a series of steps  to make it simpler to cast ballots in the next election. The bipartisan commission said in its report that jurisdictions should expand online voter registration and early balloting. Election commission releases list of suggested fixes. These GOP-controlled state legislatures are doing precisely the opposite.

Democrats and other critics of the laws say that in the face of shifting demographics, Republicans are trying to alter the rules and shape the electorate in their favor. Those most affected by the restrictions are minorities and the urban poor, who tend to vote Democratic.

“What we see here is a total disrespect and disregard for constitutional protections,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. and leader of the Moral Mondays movement, which opposes the changes.

The flurry of new measures is in large part a response to recent court rulings that open the door to more restrictive changes.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The decision allowed a number of mostly Southern states to alter their election laws without the prior approval once required from the Justice Department. A few weeks later, free of the mandate and emboldened by a Republican supermajority, North Carolina passed the country’s most sweeping restrictions on voting.

The law did away with same-day voter registration and a popular program to preregister high school students to vote. It cut early voting to 10 days from 17, mandated a strict photo identification requirement that excluded student and state worker IDs and ended straight-ticket party voting, all of them measures that are expected to hurt Democrats, election law analysts said. The Supreme Court decision also cleared the way for Texas to institute its strict photo identification requirements.

In February, the Ohio legislature moved to reduce early voting by one week, do away with registering and voting on the same day prior to Election Day, and place new restrictions on absentee ballot application mailings. And a little over a week ago, the Wisconsin Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to shorten early voting, including cutting it altogether on weekend days.

In so doing, Republicans in these states shifted their strategy away from concerns over fraud, which have proved largely unfounded, to a new rationale that suggests fairness: uniformity.

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Citing the absence of evidence documenting organized fraud in Ohio, critics said the moves would lead to even longer lines in urban districts already plagued by them.

“They know when they are taking away early voting exactly who it’s affecting,” said Ed FitzGerald, the executive of Cuyahoga County and a Democratic candidate for governor.

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Also in the name of uniformity, the Wisconsin Legislature moved a little over a week ago to limit early voting, including on weekend days.

On Thursday, Governor Walker vetoed a portion of the bill that limited early voting hours to 45 per week, but he kept in place the weekend ban and a cap at 55 hours. To handle the number of early voters who showed up in 2012, Milwaukee would have 11 seconds to process each ballot under the new law, the city’s Democratic leaders said.

State Senator Dale Schultz was a rare Republican who voted against the bill, saying the party was “fiddling with mechanics rather than ideas.”

“Making it more difficult for people to vote is not a good sign for a party that wants to attract more people,” he said.

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As the battle over voting laws escalates, Democrats are intensifying their own efforts to make voting more accessible.

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In the last year Democrats have made a concerted effort to make it easier for people to sign up to vote, including online, and to cast their votes. This push has been most effective in Democratic-controlled states like California, Colorado and Maryland. But even other states, like Arizona and Kansas, have instituted online registration.

Democrats have also filed a spate of federal and state lawsuits to combat the measures, including Justice Department lawsuits against North Carolina and Texas. A state lawsuit is expected soon in Ohio, where Democrats are also gathering signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November that would reverse some of the restrictive voting measures. And they are mobilizing grass-roots organizations in places like North Carolina, starting a voter education and registration campaign and distributing wallet-size cards with updated voter information.

There is movement in Congress, too, where a bipartisan bill has been introduced to address concerns prompted by the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act. Democrats, though, say it is not far-reaching enough. And a bipartisan presidential commission recently issued a report recommending more online voting and expanded early voting.

In all the back and forth, it remains unclear how big an impact the laws will have and whether the strategy will be successful for Republicans.

Any political party that seeks to restrict the right of American citizens to vote in an election is not deserving of their vote. If the GOP cannot win the battle of ideas, they should not win by undemocratic suppression of the vote.

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