Judith Browne-Dianis is one of the nation's leading voting rights litigators and co-director of Advancement Project, a group of civil rights attorneys.
Today, millions of people will go to the polls to vote in state and local elections. As they cast their ballot, they cast a vote for the most treasured aspect of our democracy. The voting booth is the one place where we are all equal. Whether we are rich or poor, black, Latino, Asian, Native American, or white, young or old—every citizen in America is able to have an equal voice in determining the shape of their government.
Our voting rights are now under the largest assault we have witnessed in over a century. A wave of restrictive laws passed in Republican-led state legislatures will mean that next year a disproportionate number of African-Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, the elderly, and the young will find voting difficult and in many cases impossible. Through legislation that requires a state photo ID to vote, limits early voting, places strict requirements on voter registration, and denies voting rights to Americans with criminal records who have paid their debt to society, millions of American voices will be silenced.
Larry Butler of South Carolina is one of those. He was born at home in 1926, during a time of strict segregation when African-Americans did not have access to hospitals. Because Mr. Butler does not have an official birth certificate, he was denied the free state photo ID and told that it would cost $150 to get the underlying document to obtain one. It is, in essence, a modern-day poll tax used decades ago to deny blacks in the South their right to vote. Unlike Mr. Butler, who is not a wealthy man, most Americans will not have to pay over $100 to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right.
Dorothy Cooper, 96, of Tennessee may also be barred from the voting booth. She has voted in every election for the past 70 years, but Tennessee's new law could stop her from exercising the democratic right she has cherished for so long. How? Because despite presenting a copy of her lease, a rental receipt, her voter registration card, and her birth certificate, she was denied state photo ID because her birth certificate showed her maiden name. Following media attention and a public outcry, she finally was able to get her ID, but millions of others will likely not be so fortunate.
At least 21 million Americans do not have the requisite ID: 25 percent of African-Americans, 15 percent of those earning less than $35,000, 18 percent of citizens age 65 or older, and 20 percent of voters ages 18 to 29.
In Texas, 600,000 registered voters have no driver's license or state-issued identification. In Wisconsin, approximately half of African-Americans and Latinos lack the ID required by its law. And in Tennessee, which has never required anyone over the age of 60 to have a photo on their driver's license, over 126,000 seniors now face an additional hurdle to the polls. Students in Texas, Wisconsin, and South Carolina can no longer use their college identification to vote.
The rationale for state photo ID laws is to prevent voter fraud. Yet there are no documented instances of fraud that these laws would prevent. An extensive analysis of data from all 50 states by the U.S. Justice Department found that incidents of voter fraud are exceedingly rare and were, in all cases, instances of improper voting involve registration and eligibility issues that would not be solved by voter ID laws.
There may be another reason prompting the push for these laws that inordinately impact certain voters that tend to vote Democratic. A new documentary from Brave New Foundation reveals that these laws have strong partisan backing. The American Legislative Exchange Council—a conservative advocacy group that receives funding from the billionaire Koch brothers (who also help fund the Tea Party)—crafted and distributed model legislation restricting voting for lawmakers to introduce in 34 states. The Koch brothers also contributed funds to the Republican legislators who supported these laws. Just five states where laws have already passed represent 171 electoral votes, two thirds of those needed to win the presidency. There is no question that these laws can impact electoral outcome.