Republicans rewriting state election laws in ways that could hurt Democrats

Looking to capitalize on their historic gains last year, Republican lawmakers in several states are rewriting their election laws in ways that could make it more difficult for Democrats to win.

They have curbed early voting, rolled back voting rights for ex-felons and passed stricter voter ID laws. Taken together, the measures could have a significant and negative effect on President Obama’s reelection efforts if they keep young people and minorities away from the polls.

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“It all hits at the groups that had higher turnout and higher registration in 2008,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, a civil rights lawyer who co-directs the Advancement Project, which has been tracking the new regulations.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering the latest, and perhaps most potent, legislation, a measure that would divvy up electoral votes by congressional district rather than use the winner-takes-all approach. The change would almost ensure a net gain of 20 to 24 GOP electoral votes in the 2012 presidential election.

“This is a very straightforward attempt to more closely conform the Electoral College process . . . with the will of the people,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi.

He and Republican legislators in other states say the changes are necessary to prevent voter fraud and to make elections more fair. But voting rights groups and Democrats have decried the measures as attempts to suppress votes and swing elections.

“It just seems like a partisan setup [that is] all about who is going to be in the White House in 2012,” said Browne-Dianis, whose group has issued a report arguing that the vote among young people and minorities is being suppressed. “This really is the worst rollback of voting rights that we’ve seen in a century.”

This year, more than 30 states debated changes to their voting laws. A dozen passed more restrictive rules requiring voters to present state-issued photo IDs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, although Democratic governors in four states vetoed them. Florida and Ohio will cut nearly in half the number of days for early voting, and Florida lawmakers reversed rules that had made it easier for former felons to vote.

“If you have to show a picture ID to buy Sudafed, if you have to show a picture ID to get on an airplane, you should show a picture ID when you vote,” Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said in the spring when she signed the bill into law in South Carolina.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris W. Kobach, who pushed for new voting restrictions, said that the state received 221 reports of voter fraud in 1997 and 2010.

“We all want certainty that our elections are not stolen,” Kobach said. “This is an issue where most Americans recognize that a photo ID is a part of American life today. . . . So the argument that somehow it disenfranchises people is simply not true.”

David Norcross, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, said problems with ACORN, a left-leaning organizing and voter-registration group that shut down last year, “made the whole thing a national issue” and “now is our opportunity.”

Civil rights groups and others who represent Democratic-leaning constituencies say there have been few cases of voter fraud, given the millions of ballots cast and compared with the high number of poor and minority voters who will be affected.

Twenty-five percent of African American voters do not have a valid government-issued photo ID, compared with 8 percent of whites, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. The report also found that 15 percent of voters earning less than $35,000 per year do not have such an ID.

Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, a group focused on registering young voters, said she is most worried about new restrictions on third-party voter registration groups in Florida. Volunteers for groups like hers must now fill out paperwork with the state, then obtain a set of numbered voter-registration forms and return those forms to the registrar’s office within 48 hours. If the paperwork is not in order, the volunteer and the group face fines.

Smith said Rock the Vote may file a lawsuit to try to get some of those rules overturned. Her group, which calls the new laws a “war on voting,” will announce a new initiative this fall called “You can’t stop us.”

In 2008, more than 22 million people younger than 30 voted, an increase of about 2 million from the 2004 election cycle. They voted two to one for Obama.

In Wisconsin, which passed a law requiring identification to vote, her group has started a “Got ID?” campaign, which buses students to the Department of Motor Vehicles and helps them gather the documents they need to receive an official ID.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988, urged civil rights lawyers at the Justice Department this summer to reverse some of the new restrictions. “All that we worked for in the last 50 years is on the chopping block,” Jackson said.

South Carolina and Texas — which were among the states to pass more restrictive voting laws — must have any changes to their election systems approved by the Justice Department under provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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