Voter ID laws keep citizens from voting

Ed. note: This piece was written and published in coordination with Ms. Magazine.

Ruthelle Frank, an 84-year-old resident of a small town in Wisconsin, is suing her home state because, for the first time in her adult life, she might not be able to vote. In 2011, Wisconsin’s Republican-led Legislature enacted a new law that requires state-issued photo identification for all voters. Because Frank cannot drive, she has never held a license. Last November, Frank’s daughter drove her to their local Department of Motor Vehicles office to obtain a photo ID.

Frank says she knew she did not have a proper birth certificate, so she took her baptismal certificate, marriage certificate and Social Security card to the DMV, hoping that would be sufficient.

It was not.

When she got to the counter, a woman looked at the baptismal certificate and said, “Well, this is illegal. How do I know you are not an alien?”

“I was…about to cry,” Frank recalls, “because I have lived at the same address for 83 years.”

Frank left the DMV without an ID, and now may have to pay $200 to have her birth certificate changed because her maiden name is misspelled.

Looking back, she says she can’t understand “why I would be treated as rudely as I was treated.”

This past December, Frank joined 17 fellow Wisconsinites in a lawsuit against the state’s new voter photo-ID law, claiming the law is unconstitutional and “imposes a severe and undue burden on the fundamental right to vote.”

Frank’s story might become more common in the coming months. Millions of voters are poised to face unprecedented barriers to the polls this year. Following a record-breaking influx of Republican governors and policy makers in state legislatures after the 2010 elections, states all over the country enacted legislation that will make voting more difficult for an estimated 5 million people.

Most of the laws, which experts say will make it harder for women, African Americans, Latinos, students, low-income voters, the elderly and the disabled to participate in elections, will go into effect just in time for the 2012 presidential election.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law, one of the foremost nonpartisan public-policy institutes focused on justice and democracy, wrote in a report published in October that “this wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election.” Democrats have warned the laws are crafted specifically to keep groups that are more likely to vote for their party away from the polls on Election Day, and experts note that the influx of voters in these very groups during the 2008 election could be greatly curtailed.

While identification requirements for voting are certainly not new, many states have prohibited once-acceptable identification such as student IDs, Social Security cards, utility bills and bank statements in favor of the “strict” or government-issued photo IDs. In 2011, 34 states introduced legislation requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification before voting. Seven states–including Alabama, Kansas and Wisconsin–enacted the laws. Before that, only two states had so-called strict ID requirements in order to vote.

Voting-rights experts and civil rights groups have been sounding the alarm, warning the federal government and policy-makers of the calamitous effects these laws will have. Democratic members of Congress have called upon their leaders, the U.S. Department of Justice and state secretaries of state to use everything in their arsenals to fight the new restrictions.

The impetus for these laws has also been under scrutiny. The legislators, secretaries of state and governors throwing their support behind them have commonly cited rampant voter fraud as the justification for restricting access to the polls. However, there has been little proof that such a problem exists.

Following Florida’s massive elections overhaul last year, Secretary of State Kurt Browning said what the Republican-led Legislature “felt compelled to do was address potential fraud.”

Browning said there were arrests made in Florida following the 2008 election due to problems with voter fraud, and the state’s tough new laws were aimed at preventing that from happening again. Yet overall, only 31 cases of voter fraud were ever referred to law enforcement officials in Florida between January 2008 and March 2011. Only two resulted in arrests.

In pushing for the strict voter ID law that passed in Wisconsin, Republican state Sen. Joe Leibham made the claim that “a majority” of citizens had “lost confidence in [the state’s] election system” due to “fraudulent, mischievous activity that seeks to diminish and to disenfranchise the vote of legal, legitimate citizens.” In late 2011, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus concurred, calling Wisconsin “absolutely riddled with voter fraud.” However, a 2007 Brennan Center report [PDF] found that in the 2004 elections, Wisconsin had just seven cases of voter fraud out of almost three million votes cast, or a fraud rate of 0.0002 percent.

Indeed, voting experts have long said that voter fraud is rare. According to the Brennan Center, “claims of voter fraud are frequently used to justify policies that do not solve the alleged wrongs.” In fact, “overly restrictive identification requirements,” the group explains, only address “a sort of voter fraud more rare than death by lightning.”

The new ID laws are expected to disproportionately affect the poor: A driver’s license can cost up to $45 and a passport costs $110, expenses many low-income voters simply cannot afford. In a report released last year, the NAACP went so far as to say that the laws approach a “modern-day poll tax.” The report also notes that the laws have “a uniquely burdensome impact on elderly African American voters, many of whom, because they were born when dejure segregation prevented equal access to hospitals, were never issued birth certificates.”

A 2006 report by the Brennan Center concurs, noting that laws requiring documents such as a birth certificate or proof of naturalization before registering to vote create an impenetrable barrier for millions of Americans. The center found that 7 percent of Americans did not have access to citizenship documents. If that figure holds true today, it amounts to 15 million adult citizens who can’t readily produce proof of citizenship.

Strict photo-ID requirements and proof-of-citizenship laws also particularly affect women who change their name after getting married or divorced. Because updating documentation takes time and money, these laws create an additional barrier for low-income women. According to the Brennan Center, only 66 percent of voting-age women had ready access to proof-of-citizenship documentation with their current legal name. The transgender community could also be greatly affected, since many of those who have transitioned to another gender haven’t updated their IDs. According to a recent national survey, only 59 percent [PDF] of trans people have updated photo IDs.

Critics of the new laws have pointed to several groups and conservative activists as key forces behind the push for strict ID legislation, among them the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.

ALEC, a conservative group known for pushing state-level big-business legislation, may have played a major role in getting voter ID laws passed. One of the many pieces of model legislation promoted by ALEC to the hundreds of state legislators who attend their events and subscribe to their information services was a voter ID bill requiring voters to prove their identity at the polls.

Free-market groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity also touted stories of rampant voter fraud in an effort to ratchet up support for election crackdowns, and tea-party groups also fed the hysteria. In Texas, a tea party group called the King Street Patriots held a summit in March 2011 pushing for legislation and other actions aimed at fighting alleged voter fraud.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has launched an investigation into the new voting laws and whether they are “designed to restrict voting” by making it harder for certain groups. The first hearing was on Jan. 27 in Tampa, Fla.

Some legislators have not been coy about their aims to make voting more difficult. In Florida, state Sen. Michael Bennett told his colleagues that he supported the state’s elections law because he believes voting should not be easy. “This is a hard-fought privilege,” Bennett proclaimed last May.

“This is something people die for. … Why would we make it any easier? I want ’em to fight for it … I want them to go down there, and have to walk across town to go over and vote.”

That’s not all.

Florida and Iowa also enacted arduous rights-restoration processes for individuals convicted of a felony, disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of people, many of them minorities, according to the NAACP [PDF].

Another formidable barrier to voting, according to the same NAACP report, is the ending of Election Day and same-day voter registration. Thirteen states have ended the highly popular practices. Restricting third-party voter-registration drives also disproportionately affects minorities, poor people and the young, all of whom are most likely to be registered by such groups.

No state has restricted voter registration as much as Florida. The new rules imposed in the state are so onerous that the League of Women Voters canceled its voter-registration activities for the first time.

Deirdre Macnab, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, says Florida’s new elections law is the “worst voter suppression” effort her group has ever seen passed.

“What the newest law does is it creates a vast array of red tape and risk to our registrars,” she says, adding that the law has cost her group critical time needed to register voters.

Even just to register one voter who is their nephew, god-child, best friend, they need to fill out a form that says they understand that penalties for any misrepresentation by this voter-registration agent could include five years in prison, $5,000 in fines and a third-degree felony–and that felony language is used twice on the one-page form,” adds Macnab. Third-party registrars now also have to turn in registration forms to local election supervisors within 48 hours. Prior to the law, groups had 10 days to turn in forms. “That is just an example of part of the intimidation.

Already, two high school teachers in Florida have gotten into potential trouble because, unbeknownst to them, they had violated the state’s new elections law when they were registering their students to vote. The sponsor of Florida’s election bill, state Rep. Dennis Baxley has said that he wrote it to prevent voter fraud, telling Al Sharpton on MSNBC last December that his law was created to “protect” Florida’s elections from “mishap and mischief.”

“Fraud, baloney,” responds Ruthelle Frank of Wisconsin to such an assertion. “I don’t think they want us to vote.”

Elisabeth MacNamara, the president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, says, “The fact that this is being touted as a way of making the system more secure … is just a false argument.”

Florida’s laws, in addition to Wisconsin’s, have been met with litigation. And on top of the lawsuits and the congressional investigation, groups are clamoring for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department to intervene even more strongly.

This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Holder gave a speech outside the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., in which he argued forcefully for the expansion of voting rights, a month after the Justice Department announced it was blocking a new law in the state requiring strict ID for voters.

Our commitment to strengthening–and to fulfilling–our nation’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice has never been stronger, Holder told the crowd. Nowhere is this clearer than in current efforts to expand access to, and prevent discrimination in, our election systems. We are dedicated to aggressively enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

In accordance with the act, any new voting laws in all or parts of 16 states–including five counties in Florida must be federally approved before going into effect. Laws that are shown to violate the act by attempting to keep minorities away from the polls won’t pass muster. (Officials in the Florida counties are still awaiting federal clearance on their elections reforms.)

Frank says she’s not fighting for just her own rights as she takes on Wisconsin’s law. She says that when she was growing up she learned voting was a right and a way to make your country better for yourself and everyone else.

“Not only for myself am I fighting,” Frank says. “I am fighting for everybody.”

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