Do New Voter-ID Laws Really Protect Democracy

By Daryl Hannah

Voting-rights advocates were already contending with a conservative-led onslaught of restrictive voting laws when the Supreme Court gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act last summer. Between 2011 and 2012, 41 states had already introduced 180 bills that required stricter forms of identification, narrowed or eliminated the window for early voting, and placed new restrictions on voter-registration drives. But now, as the country readies for midterm electionsthe first major election cycle since the Supreme Court removed the federal preclearance requirement for states with a history of racially discriminatory voting lawsthe growing surge of restrictive voting laws shows little sign of slowing and nearly all of these proposed changes disproportionately impact low-income, Black and Latino voters.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which maintains a comprehensive map of restrictive and expansive voting-rights laws, 22 states have passed voting-rights laws that will make it harder for more Americans to vote. And while many of these new rules are either under judicial review or don’t go into effect until 2016, voters in 15 states will face new voting laws when they head to the polls this November.

Overlapped with this surge in legislative support for more restrictive voting laws is its targeted impact on the voting habits of underrepresented races and ethnicities. According to a University of Massachusetts Boston study, states with higher Black and Latino voter turnout in 2008 and 2012 were more likely to pass restrictive voting laws. A separate study by the University of Southern California also suggested that legislative support for voter-ID laws was largely motivated by racial bias. Coincidently, of the 11 states with the highest Black voter turnout in 2008, seven have new restrictions in place. Similarly, of the 12 states with the largest Latino population growth over the last decade, nine have passed laws making it harder to vote.

“These voting laws represent the latest, misguided attempts to fix a system that isn’t broken,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement in July. “These restrictive state laws threaten access to the ballot box. The Justice Department will never shrink from our responsibility to protect the voting rights of every eligible American. And we will keep using every available tool at our disposal to guard against all forms of discrimination, to prevent voter disenfranchisement, and to secure the rights of every citizen.”

So which states passed what

  • Nine statesAlabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsinpassed changes that require voters to present a state-issued ID before voting.However, in April, a Wisconsin federal judge invalidated the change, citing its adverse affect on minority voters. The requirement is currently being debated in a Texas federal court where as many as 600,000 to 800,000 registered voters could be denied the opportunity to vote because they don’t have a state-issued ID. The Brennan Center estimates that Latinos in Texas were 46 to 120 percent more likely to lack an ID than whites, depending on where they lived in the state.
  • A total of 10 statesAlabama, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsinpassed changes to their voter-registration requirements and now demand that registrants provide documentary proof of citizenship before they can register to vote.However, it’s estimated that 7 percent of Americans don’t have ready access to proof of citizenshipsuch as a passport or certified birth certificateand therefore would not be eligible to register to vote.
  • Eight statesFlorida, Georgia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsinpassed laws cutting back on early voting days and hours and eliminating weekend voting.

According to Department of Justice data, seven in 10 Black voters in North Carolina voted during the early-voting period in 2008. Twenty-three percent of them did so during the week that the state’s new law eliminated. Likewise, cutting back weekend and evening hours, which is when underrepresented voters are more likely to cast a ballot, is sure to dampen minority voter turnout.

Despite the disparate approach of these new voting measures, the majority of Republicans still support them. When the Department of Justice announced it would challenge the constitutionality of the proposed changes in Texas, U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (RWis.) released a statement saying: “I regret that the Department of Justice announced its intent to file a lawsuit against Texas’ voter-ID law citing Section 2 to the Voting Rights Act. The Texas legislature passed voter ID, and Governor Perry signed this legislation into law in 2011. Voter-ID laws are an essential element in protecting the integrity of our electoral process and do not have a discriminatory intent or effect.”

When Senator Tim Scott (RS.C.) was asked about the American Legislative Exchange Council’s support for voter-ID laws, he responded: “You can’t get on a plane without showing who you are. You can’t cash a check without showing who you are. So why shouldn’t you have to show who you are when you vote I don’t really get the whole deal.”

And on Tuesday, when one of Georgia’s largest counties announced that it will allow early voting on Sunday, Oct. 26, and that the early-voting location will be opened at The Gallery at South DeKalb Mall, Republican State Senator Fran Millar, who represents part of the county, penned an angry response, writing:

“Now we are to have Sunday voting at South DeKalb Mall just prior to the election. Per Jim Galloway of the AJC, this location is dominated by African-American shoppers and it is near several large African-American megachurches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist. Galloway also points out the Democratic Party thinks this is a wonderful ideawhat a surprise. I’m sure Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter are delighted with this blatantly partisan move in DeKalb.

“Is it possible church buses will be used to transport people directly to the mall since the poll will open when the mall opens If this happens, so much for the accepted principle of separation of church and state.”

It remains to be seen how these laws, if upheld, will impact voter turnout and November’s midterm election. But one thing is certainly clear: Voting rights and democracy advocates have plenty of work ahead of them as they try to overturn many of these changes before the Presidential election in 2016.

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