DeGette rallies state civil rights activists to spotlight, counteract new GOP voter laws

DENVER– Colorado Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette and representatives of the state’s top civil rights organizations this weekend railed against efforts by Republican lawmakers and officials around the country to recast voter rules. Flooded with pale mountain sun on the west steps of the capitol, the speakers took turns detailing ways new registration and voting requirements and restrictions will make it more difficult for millions of Americans to cast ballots in presidential election year 2012.

Held Saturday, U.S. Human Rights Day, the event kicked off in Colorado a national effort to highlight and combat the voting rule changes. Speakers referenced recent watchdog reports (also see Brennan Center congressional testimony below) and drew historical parallels that set the new legislation into context with Jim Crow laws put into place in the defeated Confederate states after the Civil War by entrenched Democrats, so-called Dixiecrats, who sought to fight change by tamping down voting on the part of newly enfranchised black Americans.

“Voting is one of our most basic rights…. but today we are facing an assault on this right, the likes of which we haven’t seen in 100 years,” DeGette said. “The threat we’re talking about is striking on fronts all across the nation. Thirty-four states have introduced voter-suppression legislation. Bills have already passed in fourteen of those states and are pending in eight more. Some of the proposed laws end same-day voter registration and cut early voting opportunities in half. Reports have shown that these types of restrictions disproportionately affect African-American voters, blue-collar working citizens, young voters, seniors and parents that don’t have the flexibility in their schedules to stand in long lines at the polls on election day.

“It’s clear, sadly, that these efforts are being driven by a blatant desire for electoral gain by those who believe voters might stand in the way of their political ends.”

Supporters of the new voter rules say they’re necessary to prevent fraud and bolster confidence in the legitimacy of elections.

Detractors dismiss such claims, however, saying that fears of voter fraud have been wildly whipped up on the right precisely as a way to build support for laws designed to keep specific kinds of citizens from the polls, citizens who vote in large measures for Democratic candidates.

In the face of criticism, the Republican lawmakers and officials spearheading the rules changes have failed to produce evidence to demonstrate Americans perpetrate the kind of fraud that voter ID laws, for example, might combat.

Lightning strikes and UFOs

Adam Skaggs, an attorney with New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, testified in 2009 for the Texas Senate on the merits of a proposed voter ID law. Over years of study, he told members of the chamber, it had become clear that the law they were considering would cause more problems than it would solve.

“Those who are screaming about fraud are crying wolf,” he said. “This is true of the most frequently reported forms of putative voter fraud—including double voting, voting in the name of dead people, and—most importantly for the purposes of this hearing—individuals impersonating registered voters at the polls.  The Brennan Center’s exhaustive research revealed that there is little to no reliable evidence of in-person impersonation fraud, in Texas, or elsewhere in the country.  And, of course, this form of fraud is the only misconduct that a voter identification requirement will address.

“This is worth repeating: the only problem that a voter ID requirement could possibly fix usually doesn’t exist.  Texans are struck and killed by lightning more often. And there are far, far more reports of UFOs every year than instances of impersonation at the polls.”

Speaking at Saturday’s event, Jenny Flanagan, director of voting and elections at Common Cause Colorado, said there were real problems with voting that the new laws would not only fail to address but would unquestionably exacerbate.

“There is no evidence of people misrepresenting themselves at the polls. There is plenty of evidence, however, that nearly half of Americans are not voting. Yet we are seeing two-thirds of our states introducing restrictive voter laws that will prevent eligible Americans from casting votes. That’s no accident.”

Flanagan pointed to the role played by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in shaping the new voter laws. Bankrolled by the billionaire oil magnate Koch brothers, ALEC delivers sample legislation to Republican lawmakers around the country designed to establish legal roots for contemporary conservative politics priorities. It has become clear that, for the Koch brothers and ALEC, tamping down participation among Democratic voter demographics vies, for example, with priorities such as thinning regulations on industry and lowering environmental standards.

In that context, Saturday’s speeches all eventually landed on controversial Republican Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

“Why are we here today? We’re here to call out real voter fraud, which is when people use dishonest claims to make it harder for citizens to exercise their most fundamental right to vote.”

Gessler’s ‘austerity program for democracy’

“Things are tough for young Coloradans nowadays,” said Chris Getzan, a spokesman for youth-politics group New Era Colorado. “They’ve got crushing college debt. They don’t have much in the way of job options. But what we always tell them is that they still have a vote and they are able to organize.

“Scott Gessler’s plans? They result in an austerity program for democracy here in Colorado. They say that unless your last name is ‘incorporated,’ there’s a little less democracy to go around. If you want to see where the enthusiasm gap begins, look no further than Scott Gessler’s office.”

Gessler has made national news and rates special mention in Brennan Center reports this year for seeking through legislation and rulemaking to raise roadblocks to voting in the name of preventing fraud.

During the 2011 legislative session, Gessler pushed hard at the capitol for House Bill 1252, introduced by Republican lawmakers Chris Holbert and Ted Harvey. The bill sought to give Gessler expansive powers to throw registered voters off the rolls. The law would have required Gessler to “periodically check” voter rolls against a vague collection of databases “maintained by federal and state agencies.” If the secretary suspected that any registered voter “may not be a citizen,” he could initiate a 90-day process whereby the voter would have to prove again his or her right to vote.

Gessler argued that he had found cases of voter fraud in which non-citizens had cast ballots in Colorado in the 2010 election. He testified in Colorado and on Capitol Hill that, based on a cross-check of vague databases, his office had uncovered thousands of likely fraudulent votes. He started by suggesting 11,000 fraudulent votes had been cast, a shocking number that under scrutiny later shrank to 5,000 and then to hundreds. Gessler finally said he was almost sure that 106 illegal immigrants had voted in the state, an assertion that nevertheless drew strong pushback from county clerks, Republican and Democrat.

Gessler never produced substantial evidence of the kind of voter fraud he was alleging and that was supposed to justify putting in place major new election laws in the state.

House Bill 1252 seemed to come out of nowhere, with its alarming reference to illegal immigrant voting and reliance on hazy security “databases,” which the secretary of state would be empowered to monitor. In fact, it was a Colorado version of a bill and amendment introduced and passed this year in Tennessee.

Tennessee’s Senate Bill 352 was introduced by Republican Mark Norris and amended by Republican Ken Yager.

The legislation failed to pass in Colorado where Democrats, despite the GOP wave election of 2010, continued to control the state Senate and the governor’s office.

Colorado’s 1252

TN Yager amendment

Once the legislative session eneded, however, Gessler drew heat for attempting but failing to prevent county clerks from mailing out ballots to inactive voters, or voters who failed to vote in 2010. He is now drawing scrutiny for seeking to loosen rules governing the use of electronic voting machines in the state.

Nothing new

Marcus Farmer, president of the Denver Chapter of the NAACP, characterized push back against the new voter laws as part of a long battle.

The NAACP was formed in reaction to 19th century voter-suppression efforts, he said. “What we’re seeing today is not new.”

“The fact is, these requirements serve to disproportionately affect communities of color. African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, students, working women, senior citizens, and immigrants in ways that have not been seen since the era following reconstruction… About 25 percent or 6.2 million African-American voters and 16 percent of Latino-American voters or 3 million people don’t possess the types of IDs being required in these states,” he said.

Minister Dawn Riley Duval with Denver’s Metro Organizations for People, put a positive spin on the new laws. She said the hurdles they erect to voting will serve to energize presidential election year get out the vote efforts.

“Why are we here today?” she asked. “We’re here to call out real voter fraud, which is when people use dishonest claims to make it harder for citizens to exercise our fundamental right to vote…

“We’re also here to serve notice. We’re here to let folks know we’re going to rock the get out the vote efforts like never seen before. Because, by trying to jack our votes, they reignited the fire in our bellies…. We’re more determined than ever to get voters registered and get voters to the polls, even if that means putting voters on our backs to get them there.

“They will not steal the youth vote. They will not disenfranchise Hispanic voters and African-American voters. They will not suppress senior citizens’ votes. They will not do it. They will not do it. They will not do it, not on our watch. They will not do it and that’s why we’re here today.”

Norden Testimony