July 26, 2011

With only a week left before the United States of America could default on its debt, it’s easy to look at the federal government and wonder how we ever made it this far. Who would have guessed that a committed gang of extremists could bring down the economy? And yet, that’s where we find ourselves today, cornered by a manufactured crisis and running out of time. As Larry Sabato rightly tweeted over the weekend, “For anybody who teaches the American system and believes in it, this has been an extremely discouraging week.”

Unfortunately, the assault on our democracy is not confined to Congress or the standoff over the debt ceiling. It is also seeping into the states, where voting rights — the fundamental underpinning of any democracy — are being curbed and crippled.

In states across the country, Republican legislatures are pushing through laws that make it more difficult for Americans to vote. The most popular include new laws requiring voters to bring official identification to the polls. Estimates suggest that more than 1 in 10 Americans lack an eligible form of ID, and thus would be turned away at their polling location. Most are minorities and young people, the most loyal constituencies of the Democratic Party.

There are only two explanations for such action: Either Republican governors and state legislators are genuinely trying to protect the public from rampant voter fraud, or they are trying to disenfranchise the Americans most likely to vote against them. The latter would run so egregiously counter to democratic values — to American values — that one hopes the former was the motivation.

And yet, a close examination finds that voter fraud, in truth, is essentially nonexistent. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice found the incidence of voter fraud at rates such as 0.0003 percent in Missouri and 0.000009 percent in New York. “Voter impersonation is an illusion,” said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center. “It almost never happens, and when it does, it is in numbers far too small to effect the outcome of even a close election.”

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) disagrees. He argues that voter fraud is a serious problem that requires serious action. But as proof, Kobach cites just “221 incidents of voter fraud” in Kansas since 1997, for an average of just 17 a year. As a Bloomberg editorial points out, “During that same period, Kansans cast more than 10 million votes in 16 statewide elections. Even if the fraud allegation were legitimate . . . the rate of fraud would be miniscule.”

The facts, however clear, did not deter the Kansas legislature from passing one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. Neither have they deterred other states that have passed such laws this year, or dozens of others considering similar action.

That’s because the facts of voter fraud are, in reality, wholly irrelevant to the Republican push for stricter laws. Republicans aren’t concerned with preventing a problem that isn’t occurring. They are concerned with preserving their party’s position in power, and they are willing to disenfranchise millions of people to do so. No other explanation could possibly pass the smell test.

This is seen, as well, in the fact that a number of new restrictive voting policies wouldn’t prevent voter fraud, even if it were occurring. In Ohio, for example, a recently signed law to curb early voting won’t prevent voter impersonation; it will only make it more difficult for citizens to cast their ballot. Or take Florida’s new voter registration law, which is so burdensome that the non-partisan League of Women Voters is pulling out of Florida entirely, convinced that it cannot possibly register voters without facing legal liability. Volunteers would need to have “a secretary on one hand and a lawyer on the other hand as they registered voters,” said Deirdre MacNabb, president of the Florida League of Women Voters.

What’s worse is that these aren’t a series of independent actions being coincidentally taken throughout the country. This is very much a coordinated effort. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a corporate-funded organization that works with state legislators to draft model legislation. According to The Nation’s John Nichols, “Enacting burdensome photo ID or proof of citizenship requirements has long been an ALEC priority.” It’s not surprise then, that the Wisconsin state legislator who pushed for one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation is also ALEC’s Wisconsin chair.

I asked Alexander Keyssar, one of the country’s premier voting rights scholars, for some historical context. When was the last time an effort of this nature was so central to the agenda of an American political party? “What is so striking about the wave of legislation for ID laws is that we are witnessing for the first time in more than a century, a concerted, multi-state effort to make it more difficult for people to exercise their democratic rights,” he said. Keyssar, author of “The Right to Vote,” noted that “it is very reminiscent of what occurred in the North between 1875 and 1910 — the era of Jim Crow in the South — when a host of procedural obstacles were put in the way of immigrants trying to vote.”

Even in the face of such overwhelming evidence, there are still conservatives who audaciously claim that these restrictive laws are not intended to shrink the electorate. Defenders point to the fact that, in addition to young people and minorities, the elderly, who tend to vote for Republicans, are among the groups likely to lack an ID. True. But rather than exonerate Republicans, this information is even more damning. Take Texas for example: This year Texas passed a voter ID law, but wrote in a provision that explicitly exempts the elderly from complying with the law. The law also considers a concealed handgun license as an acceptable form of ID, but a university ID as insufficient.

That there is still a party in American politics willing to use disenfranchisement as a political tactic is gut-wrenching. Today, 46 years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, it must be the job of the American people to fight back against the forces that are disfiguring their nation on behalf of their party. Our dignity and the destiny of our democracy depends on it.