Well over a year before the 2012 presidential election, there's a battle going on over next year's ballots—how they'll count and who will get to cast them. At stake is an attempt to distort the voters' will by twisting the rule of law.
Most recently, Pennsylvania has been the focus of this battle. Dominic Pileggi, the state Senate majority leader, wants to change the way the Keystone State distributes its electoral votes, divvying them up according to how each presidential candidate performed in each congressional district, with the remaining two electoral votes going to the candidate who won the popular vote.
So while Barack Obama's 55 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania in 2008 netted him all 21 of its electoral votes, the Pileggi plan would have shaved that figure to 11 electors. (Nationwide, Obama won 242 congressional districts while John McCain got 193.) The change would be even sharper as Pennsylvania's new congressional map is expected to have 12 of the state's 18 seats drawn to favor the GOP. Obama could win a majority of the Keystone vote again but only score eight of the state's 20 electors. Do we really want to bring gerrymandering into presidential elections?
The politics here aren't obscure: Every Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992 has won Pennsylvania. This is a naked attempt to undercut Democratic nominees. (And while Pennsylvania would join Nebraska and Maine with such a law, Nebraska Republicans are trying to return to the unit rule after Obama won a single elector there in 2008.) But the Pennsylvania gerrymander gambit is only one aspect of a broader push to rig the game.
The 2010 elections marked a huge shift in control of state legislatures from Democrats to Republicans. The result, according to Tova Wang, a Senior Democracy Fellow at the progressive think tank Demos, has been "an attack on voting rights in this country like we haven't seen in years and years."
So far this year, bills have been introduced in at least 38 state legislatures designed to make it harder for Americans to exercise their right to vote. Fourteen have actually enacted such laws, according to a report released this week by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which found that the new rules could make it "significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012." As Rolling Stone reported recently, Kansas and Alabama, for example, now require proof of citizenship to register to vote; Florida and Texas have raised barriers to groups like the League of Women Voters conducting voter registration drives; Florida and Iowa barred ex-felons from voting, instantly removing nearly 200,000 voters from their states' rolls; Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia have cut back on early voting; and Maine repealed its law allowing citizens to register and vote on Election Day or on the two business days immediately preceding it (even though GOP Gov. Paul LePage had himself used that law to register the day before the 1982 election).
Perhaps the GOP's most popular vote suppression tool is a set of new laws requiring voters to present photo identification before they cast ballots. Seven states—Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin—have enacted such measures this year. At first glance this may seem reasonable. Who doesn't have a valid photo ID? The answer may surprise you. A 2006 study by the Brennan Center found that 11 percent of U.S. citizens lack one, a figure in line with a 2005 report by an election reform federal commission which suggested 12 percent of U.S. citizens lack driver's licenses. Drilling down, the Brennan Center found that the groups worst off in this regard tend to be core Democratic constituencies: 25 percent of voting age African-Americans and 15 percent of voting age citizens who make less than $35,000 annually lack valid photo IDs.
In Ohio, where such a law is pending, roughly 940,000 citizens lack valid IDs, according to a study by a nonpartisan voters group. Or take Wisconsin: Less than half of Milwaukee County African-Americans and Hispanics have driver's licenses, according to a study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the figures are worse for younger voters. Indeed, the Wisconsin law is especially pernicious, specifically not accepting student IDs, even from state institutions. Texas's voter ID law is even more blatant in who it's aimed at. State gun permits are acceptable, but student IDs and government employment cards are not.
And these laws are a solution searching for a problem. Conservatives have long bemoaned the menace of voter impersonation, but the evidence for this threat is nonexistent. George W. Bush's Justice Department spent years ferreting out voter fraud and managed to prosecute not one voter for impersonating another. "Out of the 300 million votes cast [between 2002 and 2007] federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud," Rolling Stone reported. A 2007 study by the Brennan Center found the instances of voter fraud to be literally infinitesimal. "You're more likely to get killed by lightning than commit in-person voter fraud," says the Brennan Center's Michael Waldman. Which only makes sense: That thousands of people are casting illegal votes in others' names while evading determined detection (always managing to choose people who weren't going to vote anyway) doesn't pass the smell test.
Knock away the spurious reasons for the push to restrict voting and you're left with bare-knuckled partisanship. "There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today," former President Bill Clinton told a group of young political activists over the summer. He's right, and it must be fought at every level.
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