Friday, June 29, 2012

Obamacare and voter suppression laws: a disturbing link

Now that the Republicans have lost the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, they are reverting to Plan B: Snatch the presidency away from Barack Obama and repeal healthcare reform.

Granted, repeal seems a pipe dream. It requires a Republican trifecta of a presidential victory, holding onto the House and, most unlikely, taking over the Senate enough to garner the 60 votes needed to repeal .

But the Republicans have a secret weapon: new statewide voting laws, in particular voter ID requirements, that have passed in Republican-controlled legislatures in the last two years. The restrictions disproportionately impact poor people, the elderly, the young, immigrants and people of color, groups which tend to lean Democratic.

A leading Pennsylvania Republican, in one of those “oops” moments, made clear that so-called voter ID laws are really about suppressing the Democratic vote.

At a statewide gathering of Republicans in Pennsylvania a week ago, the state’s House Majority leader said that the state’s new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

The statement was made by Mike Turzai, a Republican from Allegheny who made the unexpectedly candid statement when boasting of the accomplishments of the GOP-run legislature, from the so-called “Castle Doctrine,” to anti-abortion regulations, to voter ID.

Unfortunately for Turzai, his comments were caught on video. Reports also noted that Turzai’s comments “drew a loud round of applause from the audience.”

Since the Republican upsurge in 2010, fifteen states passed have passed “restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The states account for 210 electoral votes, or nearly 78 percent of the votes needed to win the presidency.

The laws range from photo and voter ID requirements to laws that make it harder to register to vote, or require proof of citizenship, or reduce the ability to vote early or vote absentee.

Under Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin enacted the most stringent voter ID law in the country.

Reince Priebus, state resident and head of the Republican National Committee, has long claimed that voter ID is needed because voter fraud is rampant in Wisconsin. But there’s one problem. As theMilwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, Priebus has “little evidence to back up his claim.”

Nationally, the Republicans’ new voting laws have spawned a spate of lawsuits and challenges. How many of the challenges will be resolved before November is unclear. (For the status of the laws, go to theBrennan Center for Justice.)

Voter ID has been the Republican’s preferred form of voter suppression. But it’s not the only tool in the Republican arsenal. Take the case of Florida, the state that made “hanging chad” a household term in 2000 and that gave George W. Bush the presidency even though he did not win the popular vote.

In May 2011, Florida passed a bill that changed the rules for both early voting and voter registration. The bill’s sponsor was clear that he wanted to make it difficult to vote.

“I don’t have a problem making it harder,” state senator Mike Bennett said. “I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in African who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy.”

Just in case Florida’s new voting law may not sufficiently suppress Democratic turnout, this May state officials begun a dubious “voter purge” program allegedly aimed at non-citizens but which has snared naturalized citizens and U.S.-born citizens lacking appropriate papers. Most of the people on the “non-citizens” list are people of color, especially Latinos, who tend to vote Democrat.

In Florida, as in Wisconsin, dire warnings of rampant voter fraud helped build support for the Republicans’ attack on voting rights. But, as the head of the Florida ACLU noted in a segment on The Colbert Report, "There are probably a larger number of shark attacks in Florida than there are cases of voter fraud."

PolitiFact followed up on that sharks claim. It found a total of 49 cases of voter fraud from 2008 to 2011, compared to 72 shark attacks. What’s more, a report by the Orlando Sentinel found only seven convictions for voter fraud since 2000 — less than one a year. 

The Brennan Center for Justice, meanwhile, calls voter fraud “extremely rare” — noting that in one closely analyzed election in Ohio in 2004, the voter fraud rate was 0.00004 percent. 

One issue that has gotten scant attention is the denial of voting rights to convicted felons.

In Virginia, for instance, almost 300,000 state residents cannot vote because of past felony convictions. Fifty percent of those affected are African American. 

Virginia and three other states permanently dis-enfranchise convicted felons, even if they have served their sentence and are no longer under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Seven states permanently disenfranchise certain categories of felons. Wisconsin is one of 20 states that restore voting rights after felons have completed their sentence, including parole and probation.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, do not prohibit felons from voting. 

A movement to grant basic rights to felons is not likely to gain traction soon, given both the overall tenor of politics in this country and the Republicans’ habit of using race to instill fear among white voters.

But that doesn’t mean the dis-enfranchisement of felons isn’t a stain on our democracy. In fact, as Project Vote notes, “The United States is the only country that permits permanent disenfranchisement of felons even after completion of their sentences.” 
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

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