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.
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.
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.
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.
“We’re O.K. unless something — anything at all — goes wrong.”
— Rachel Haifley, mother of two young sons in Lansing, MI who works part-time making a little less than $9 an hour, on her family’s lack of economic security. According to the New York Times, over 11,000 Michigan families received letters last week notifying them that in October they will lose cash assistance that has been sustaining them for years. As of 2009, 23% of Michigan children were living below the poverty level.
Research Roundup: Effective Job Creation Proposals, The State of the Economy for Workers, and More
In this week’s research roundup: New resources from Economic Policy Institute on eleven effective job creation proposals, Keystone Research Center andPolicy Matters Ohio on the declining economic situation for workers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Gallup-Healthways tracking the well-being of residents of all 50 states, Pew Charitable Trusts on factors influencing the downward mobility of the middle class, Young Invincibles on how students returning to college this fall can get covered by health insurance, and Public Citizen why the SEC should mandate disclosure of corporate political activity.
Putting America back to work: Policies for job creation and stronger economic growth — This briefing paper by the Economic Policy Institute outlines eleven effective job creation proposals that the authors judge would make a “real difference in job creation” over the next 24 months. Included in the highlighted policies are proposals to: temporarily renew the payroll tax cut, renew the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, increasing employment by 528,000 jobs, pass the federal transportation bill, restore the increased federal Medicaid matching rate, enact a direct job creation program rebuilding infrastructure, invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, enact a job creation tax credit, and implement a federally subsidized work-sharing program.
State of Working Pennsylvania 2011 and State of Working Ohio 2011 — These two reports published by the Keystone Research Center and Policy Matters Ohio, both members of the Economic Analysis Research Network — take stock of the economic situation for workers in their respective states, and find much common cause for concern. In Pennsylvania, over a quarter of workers experienced joblessness or worked part time while wanting more hours over the past year, wages have been stagnant with only the highest-paid 5% of earners experiencing significant wage gains over the past eight year, and for every job opening in the state there are eight unemployed or underemployed workers. In Ohio, the authors of the report found that Ohio had seen the worst wage decline of any state in the nation between 2000 and 2010 and that the percentage of people employed or looking for work has fallen four straight years to 65.2 percent, “the lowest level since the late 1980s.”
2011 Well-Being Index— This biannual survey released by Gallup-Healthways measures the well-being of residents of all 50 states by tracking “55 individual items that together provide a comprehensive picture of Americans’ physical and emotional health, financial and workplace wellbeing, and access to basic necessities.” The wealth of data available from the survey includes rankings by state of various health and well-being measures from 2008, 2009, and 2010.
Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking Up from the American Dream — This extensive analysis by Pew Charitable Trusts aims to measure movement in the middle class in the United States, and finds that a full one-third of Americans who were raised in the middle class (defined in the report as those between the 30th and 70th percentiles of the income distribution) fall out of the middle class as adults. The report attempts to identify the factors that lead to this downward mobility and how they affect individuals differently based on race and gender, and finds that “marital status, education, test scores and drug use have a strong influence on whether a middle-class child loses economic ground as an adult.”
Back to School Toolkit — This online toolkit provided by Young Invincibles allows students returning to college this fall to access the resources they need to get health insurance coverage in their state. It allows students to find out their insurance options, how to join their parent’s insurance plan, and how some of the new provisions of the Affordable Care Act affect them as they return to campus.
Fulfilling Kennedy’s Promise: Why the SEC Should Mandate Disclosure of Corporate Political Activity — This new report from Public Citizen and Harvard Law School examines Standard and Poors 500 companies and concludes that corporations with pro-disclosure policies may be more valuable than those without such policies, or as the authors conclude, that “despite reflexive opposition to compulsory disclosure of political spending from many self-appointed advocates of the business community, preliminary data suggest that such a requirement might benefit corporate valuations or, at the least, pose no threat of a detrimental effect.”
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