PSN 2011 Election Reform Roundup: Conservatives Push Voter Suppression Nationwide


(Note: This week’s Dispatch is the sixth in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different critical policy areas across the fifty states.)

Conservatives wasted no time in exploiting their numeric advantages following historic gains in state legislatures during the 2010 midterm elections, particularly in the area of voting rights. Of the over 285 election reform bills enacted in 47 states in 2011, the majority were passed in conservative-dominated legislatures and will serve to restrict access to the polls in time for the 2012 election. In addition to the passage of well-publicized voter ID legislation, successful rollbacks to existing laws, including shortening early voting periods and eliminating same day registration, will mainly serve to benefit conservative candidates at the public’s expense.

Doug Chapin, director of an elections-administration program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, calls the barrage of attempts to restrict voter access the “battle before the battle,” when parties try to advance what they believe are the fairest — or most advantageous — rules in time for next year’s election. Conservatives have long believed that limiting access to the polls works in their favor. As conservative activist and founder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) Paul Weyrich commented to a crowd of evangelical leaders in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” The stakes in 2012 are so high that voter ID requirements and other voter suppression bills have been rammed through many statehouses this year, even with legislators’ full knowledge of the high implementation costs that will be incurred to struggling state budgets.

Despite the undeniable fact that 2011 was a difficult year for those seeking to protect voters from disenfranchisement, measures as diverse as campaign finance reform, online registration, and restoration of voting rights still managed to gain momentum in many states. Furthermore, right-wing overreach was rebuked not only by the veto pen, but by an electrified public that is now gathering signatures to place repeals of voter suppression legislation on the ballot and pushing shareholder petitions to increase political accountability at publicly-traded corporations. Building on these advances and continuing to sway public opinion will be critical in 2012, particularly to counterbalance the second round of attacks on voting rights that will inevitably come next year.

Suppressing the Vote through Voter ID Bills

In perhaps the biggest election reform story of 2011, legislation to require photo ID from voters at the polls had its most successful year to date. Prior to 2011, only Georgia and Indiana had photo ID laws so strict that not even signed affidavits were accepted as a means of allowing voters to cast a ballot. This year, conservatives, stoking misguided public fears of mythical “voter fraud,” introduced bills in an astounding 33 states. To date, voter ID laws have been enacted in Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Bills in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina passed both chambers, but were vetoed by their governors. Voters in Mississippi will weigh in during this year’s November election when a petition to sanction voter ID appears on the 2011 ballot.

The voter ID laws that were signed into law vary in their provisions — Tennessee, for example, expressly forbids student IDs while Wisconsin only allows such IDs if they include a signature and expiration date (though no college ID in the state currently meets this standard) — but most share common origins. Earlier this year, Campus Progress reported that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization whose funders include many large corporations including the Koch brothers, drafted and distributed model voter ID legislation that is strikingly similar to what has been introduced in statehouses this year. In five of the states that passed voter ID laws this year — Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin — the bills were championed by legislators who are also ALEC members. Taken alongside ALEC’s much-publicized attempts to replace unionized workers with prison labor and expand immigrant detention through SB 1070-style bills, it is not hard to see how voter ID fits into a larger, conservative agenda that has nothing to do with voter fraud and everything to do with tilting the playing field toward corporate-friendly candidates.

Unsurprisingly, voter ID restrictions will continue to be a topic of debate in 2012. In addition to states like Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire, which will likely be revisiting failed 2011 legislation, voter ID will be on the 2012 ballot in Missouri.

New Obstacles to Voter Registration, Early Voting

The conservative strategy of gaining an electoral edge in 2012 by shutting minorities, youth, low-income, and elderly voters out of the political process goes beyond legislation to turn those without proper photo ID away from the polls. Proponents of voter suppression have found that making it harder to get on the voter rolls in the first place is an equally effective means of ensuring that historically disenfranchised groups that have traditionally participated at lower rates in our democracy stay away from the polls.

Requiring proof of citizenship in order to register to vote can disenfranchise thousands of legal residents who do not have easy access to the necessary documents. In Missouri alone, the Secretary of State previously estimated that these measures would disenfranchise more than 240,000 registered voters. Though these initiatives were nowhere near as widespread as voter ID requirements this year, proof of citizenship was introduced in nine states and signed into law in Kansas, making it the third state — in addition to Arizona and Georgia — to adopt such a policy. Tennessee and Texas enacted related bills that would require proof of citizenship of registered voters who are flagged as potential noncitizens during list maintenance procedures.

Same day registration (SDR) has been a boon for the increased electoral participation of youth, people of color, and low-income populations that are among the most mobile and for whom registering at their new addresses before registration deadlines pass is particularly difficult. It is no wonder that SDR has been targeted by lawmakers this year in half of the states that have enacted the reform — Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. In vetoing Montana’s repeal of SDR (with a branding iron, naturally), Gov. Schweitzer noted how the measure was “in direct contradiction to the expressed will of the people of Montana.” Wisconsin’s measure takes away the existing option of allowing another registered voter to vouch for one’s identity or residence. Maine’s elimination of SDR was signed into law, but public outrage and a citizen-led drive has now gathered enough petition signatures to force the issue to the voters in a ballot measure this November.

Conservatives also opted to cut off third-party registration drives at the knees by making it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Coincidentally, people of color are twice as likely to register to vote through a third party. Texas and Florida both passed legislation restricting such voter registration drives, with Florida’s measure so draconian that the League of Women Voters announced that their 70 years of registration efforts in the state would be coming to an end. Under Florida’s new law, the period in which a canvasser must turn in complete applications has been shortened from 10 days to 48 hours, violations of which would incur prohibitive fines to the organization. Florida’s omnibus legislation — which took effect a day after it was enacted, under an emergency statute designed for “an immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare” — also ends a longstanding practice that allows voters to change their addresses between counties on Election Day and cast a regular ballot. Voters wishing to update their addresses on Election Day, in addition to newly-married people who have changed their names, must now use a provisional ballot despite the fact that county elections supervisors have access to a statewide voter database that can confirm such changes. Provisional ballots have a notoriously bad track record in the state, with half of them thrown out in 2008.

Finally, in a disappointing move that bypassed the legislature, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other members of the Florida Board of Executive Clemency voted unanimously to roll back rules enacted by Republican Gov. Crist, which had made it easier for nonviolent felons to regain their voting and other civil rights upon completion of their debt to society. Over 100,000 ex-convicts were able to register to vote ahead of the 2008 election as a result of the 2007 rule change, which had a huge impact on people of color — African Americans comprise half of the state’s prison population. A similar move by Gov. Terry Branstad in Iowa reversed his predecessor’s decision to restore voting rights to 100,000 ex-felons. Prior to this year, only Kentucky and Virginia had required former felons to apply for the right to vote after finishing their sentences.

In addition to attacks on voter registration, four states also chose to curtail early voting this year, with laws enacted in Florida and Ohio being the most atrocious of the bunch. Both states put an end to the practice of “Sunday voting,” which one report in the Sunshine state noted appeared to be “aimed directly at discouraging Florida's black voters,” who comprised nearly a third of the turnout on the Sunday before election day in 2008 (in total, 54 percent of the state's African American voters cast their ballots during the early voting period in 2008.)

Ohio not only halved its early voting period, but an omnibus bill there also eliminated “Golden Week,” the limited time frame before Election Day during which voters could both register to vote and cast an in-person absentee ballot on the same day. The new law was such an affront to voting rights that Ohio state advocates are mobilizing to gather more than 231,000 signatures so that a repeal of the legislation can be placed on next year’s ballot.

Protecting Clean and Fair Elections

While conservative advocates of lower turnout and increased barriers to voting may have had a good year in the statehouses, increasingly fed-up members of the public found ways to circumvent right-wing initiatives through non-legislative means. In addition to a successful citizen-driven petition to put a repeal of Maine legislation to eliminate Same Day Registration on the 2012 ballot, citizens in Ohio are gathering signatures in an effort to do the same for the states’ disenfranchising omnibus elections law. Meanwhile, gridlock at both the state and federal levels regarding campaign finance reforms to address a post-Citizens United landscape has motivated corporate shareholders to introduce resolutions at proxy meetings in an attempt to increase corporate political accountability and disclosure.

Advocates such as Project Vote, Demos, ACLU, Lawyers’ Committee, and NAACP have also played a key role in defending democracy throughout the states. Not only have they filed challenges against legislation such as Florida’s Voter Suppression Act and Missouri’s voter ID ballot initiative, but lawsuits to ensure state agency compliance under the National Voting Rights Act (NVRA) have been refreshingly successful. In 2011 alone, lawsuits in Indiana and New Mexico resulted in settlements that reinforce the NVRA’s mandate that public assistance agencies offer voter registration materials to clients. Lawsuits in Louisiana and Georgia are ongoing, while advocates have filed notice in Michigan and Texas regarding similar NVRA violations.

Supporters of voting rights also scored key victories in online registration and campaign finance reform. Bills in Maryland and Nevada to allow a person to register to vote or change name, party affiliation, or address on an existing record were signed into law. Though California passed an online registration bill in 2008, its implementation stalled due to delays in modernizing the statewide computer databases — AB 1357, enacted into law, would allow counties to develop their own online registration systems. A second California bill that has passed both chambers and is waiting for Governor Jerry Brown’s signature (SB 397) would allow the Secretary of State’s office to obtain an electronic signature for the electronic voter registration form directly from the Department of Motor Vehicles. An online registration bill was approved by both chambers in Hawaii, but was vetoed by Gov. Abercrombie because it did not specify how implementation costs would be covered. Allowing online voter registration is an important first step toward ensuring that all citizens can take the steps needed to stay on the voter rolls as their living situations change.

On campaign finance disclosure, Maryland enacted a bill that finally addresses the state’s alarming lack of any disclosure requirements for independent political expenditures, but that also makes the state the first in the country to require companies spending money on state elections to report expenditures to their shareholders. A bill in New Mexico with the same disclosure requirements as Maryland’s also passed one chamber. Additionally, the courts issued significant rulings to defend transparency and accountability. The First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of disclosure laws in Maine and Rhode Island, finding that they do not limit free speech, while the Ninth Circuit Court upheld San Diego’s ban on corporate contributions.

Other steps forward on voting rights this year included legislation to reduce barriers to voting for ex-felons who have completed their sentences, which gained momentum in Nevada this year, where AB 301 passed the statehouse only to be vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval. Another positive bill in California (SB 641) which would allow a person to register to vote and cast a provisional ballot during early voting or Election Day, passed the Senate and is currently before the Appropriations Committee.

Looking Forward to 2012: Protecting the Vote, Changing the Debate

As many of the same legislative efforts to make it more difficult to vote promise to be renewed next year, progressive lawmakers are not just looking to protect voting rights but to the change the debate in order to ensure clean and fair elections in 2012 and beyond. This includes taking on the “voter fraud” myth at its roots, and highlighting the real problems confronting democracy in our states: unacceptably low voter turnout, ever-increasing corporate influence in our politics post-Citizens United, and registration and voting systems that are in desperate need of modernization. As Ari Berman noted in a recent piece in Rolling Stone, “The real problem in American elections is not the myth of voter fraud, but how few people actually participate.”

In some states, activists are not waiting for 2012 sessions to make their voices heard and impact the national political debate. Efforts are already underway in Maine and Ohio to allow voters to go to the polls this November to reject recently passed laws repealing same-day registration and a range of attacks on voting rights, respectively. The success of concerned citizens and activists in gaining enough petition signatures to force these issues to the ballot will hopefully be followed by success at the ballot box, but no matter the result this November, these efforts and others like it point the way forward for all who are interested in fighting back against the partisan (and expensive) attack on voting at the state level and in strengthening our democracy. Whether it is through increasing disclosure requirements to take on corporate influence, advancing voter registration modernization measures to grow the electorate, or engaging the ongoing conservative attacks on young voters and historically disenfranchised groups, lawmakers and advocates will have many opportunities to change the debate around voting and elections in 2012.

Full Resources from this Article

PSN 2011 Election Reform Roundup: Conservatives Push Voter Suppression Nationwide

Campus Progress – Conservative Corporate Advocacy Group ALEC Behind Voter Disenfranchisement Efforts
Bloomberg – U.S. States Tighten Voting Regulation With Republicans in Charge
Brennan Center for Justice – The Cost of Voter ID Laws: What the Courts Say
Brennan Center for Justice – Policy Brief on the Truth About Voter Fraud
Brennan Center for Justice – Voting Rights in 2011: A Legislative Round-Up
National Conference of State Legislatures – 2011 Elections Legislation Database
National Conference of State Legislatures – Voter ID: State Requirements
Project Vote – Election Legislation 2011: Threats and Opportunities Assessment Update
Rolling Stone – The GOP War on Voting

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