current affairs

State of American Politics: Voter Suppression Laws

2008 was historic for US minorities.

2008 was historic for US minorities. The first African-American president of the United States, Black women outvoting all other racial, gender and ethnic groups, and states achieving record high turnouts of minorities. All in all it seemed American was on a steady progressive path towards an even more diverse voting population and engaged public.  But things are never that simple in American and over the past four years the nation has descended into bitter political polarization. According to a recent survey Americans are more divided now than at any point in the last 25 years on political ideology and as we approach November the political establishment’s façade of gentility has been exposed plainly on the issue of voter suppression laws.

Voter fraud has long been a conspiracy theory spouted in American conservative circles, yet there had previously never been much success or support for legislation to prevent it due to poor statistics (9 known instances from 2000-2007) and a lack of party cohesion on the issue.  However in 2009 ALEC (a conservative group made up of State legislators, businesses and other special interests) adopted and circulated model voter ID legislation to its members across the US. Following the swing in control of the majority of state legislators to the Republican Party in the 2010 Mid-Term elections all voter ID legislation introduced bore resemblance to the ALEC model legislation. 

According to a recent report 164 laws were introduced in states to restrict US citizens from voting in the 2012 elections, 21 passed since the start of 2011 and at least 65 more pending.  These laws primarily deal with 4 areas.  

  1. The requirement to have a government issued photo-ID. It is estimated 18% of over 65s do not have government-issued photo IDs, 19% of Latinos, 25% of Blacks and 20% of Asian-Americans compared to just 8% of white people.
  2. Reductions on the early voting period and elimination of Sunday voting.  It is well-known fact that the Black communities in particular take advantage of these periods of voting.
  3. Restrictions on voter registration drives, the primary method for voter registration outreach to minorities.
  4. Establishment of much stricter proof of residency laws affecting students who study out of state and those who have been evicted or lost their homes.

The Brennan center estimates that at least 5 million eligible voters may find it harder to vote in the upcoming election due to these voter suppression laws.  So how can it be justified?

Well the simple answer is it can’t, the problem is the federal system of America means each state has autonomy to pass voting laws and only states with a history of discrimination must go through a ‘preclearance’ process with the Department of Justice to ensure laws are not enacted which would harm the voting rights of minorities. However, there are legal battles in progress regarding voter identification laws in the “battleground” states of Florida and Pennsylvania whilst in Ohio (another swing state) the Obama team has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of offering early voting to only military residents.

Map of Shame: US Voter Supression lawsHowever the worst offender is Florida who has maintained consistent and sustained attacks upon voter rights over the years.  As some may recall, the “chads” scandal in Florida lead to a George W. Bush controlled White House for eight years and it seems that bad habits die hard.  A recent bill passed by the Republican-controlled state legislator and signed by Republican Governor Scott places extreme restrictions on voter registration groups.  So much so that many have been forced to close for fear of being jailed if found in breach of the law.  Governor Scott also changed Florida’s clemency laws (period of time after which an ex-felon regains voter rights) and will now deny a possible million Floridians the right to vote.  Florida has also recently begun to purge residents from its voting rolls. In May a list of 2,700 possible non-citizens were sent to county election supervisors for verification, those on the list were to be contacted and given 30 days to prove citizenship or be purged.  These efforts fortunately have been halted but the statistics were shocking.  87% of people on the list were minorities with 58% identified as Hispanic.  Hispanics make up only 22.5% of the state. 

It is unknown how drastically these laws will affect the result in November but we do know there will be millions disenfranchised to prevent a handful of instances of voter impersonation.  Yet to challenge these laws may mean that a presidential winner will not be known for weeks after November 6th.  Is it possible that once again the Supreme Court will find itself in the middle of the politics it so desperately tries to avoid?  And ultimately will it be a red or blue White House in the Spring?


Sources: Brennan Center for Justice report on Voting Law Changes in 2012 and Pew Research Center 2012 Values Survey