New Fights Over Who Gets to Vote
As Georgia's political parties gear up for the July 18 primary, they're locked in a long-term, bitter dispute over a basic question: Who will get to vote? Democrats and voting-rights activists say a Republican-backed voter ID law could disenfranchise thousands of poor and minority voters. Last week a state court agreed, temporarily blocking enforcement of the law--and adding fodder to a debate that has divided states across the country.
Election rules have always been politically contentious, but recent allegations of fraud and mismanagement--combined with shifts in voter demographics--have set off a wave of new voting laws in the states. While Congress has set some minimum standards, several states have passed much tougher laws, often along partisan lines. Laws that rein in registration drives or require voters to show photo identification or proof of citizenship have rived state legislatures; legal challenges are pending in at least six states.
Fraud or access? Republicans argue that restrictions are needed to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats say such laws disenfranchise the poor, minorities, and the elderly, who are thought less likely to have photo IDs--and more likely to be Democrats. "Both parties have become wedded to a single concern about voting: Republicans with ballot security and Democrats with access," says Robert Pastor, director of last year's Commission on Federal Election Reform. "You cannot have a free and fair election without both."
The immigration debate only lessens the chances of bipartisan reform. Opposition to multilingual ballots from House Republicans derailed, for now, renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And worries about noncitizen voting are prompting calls for stronger voter ID laws, with proof of citizenship.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, created by Congress in 2002, is only beginning to look at the fraud issue. But preliminary research, sources say, found little evidence of in-person voting fraud--the type that voter IDs are most likely to prevent. More evidence exists of registration and absentee voter fraud. A complete report is not expected until next year or later.
Even voter IDs, which enjoy wide public support, are controversial. The election reform commission endorsed them--if all voters get one. But that isn't always happening, says Pastor. Some legislatures "are imposing stringent ID requirements without providing sufficient resources" to get IDs to people who need them, he says. And some states with tough ID laws are making it easier to vote absentee. Says DeForest "Buster" Soaries, the former chairman of the EAC, "There are some people who are using these issues to promote illegitimate goals."
Observers expect to see more voter access laws passed along partisan lines--and, says Rick Hasen of Loyola Law School, more lawsuits challenging them. "We're just asking for trouble in the future."
This story appears in the July 17, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.