As the midterm elections near, it’s unclear who can vote
With less than three weeks until the midterm elections, the rules for voter ID keep changing — and many key races hang in the balance.
In a big ruling on Wednesday evening, Arkansas’ highest court struck down the state’s photo ID requirement. The court ruled that the state’s constitution secures the right to vote without “any proof-of-identity requirement.”
Meanwhile at the federal level, a district court tossed out Texas’s controversial voter ID law last week, accepting the Obama administration’s argument that it amounted to a discriminatory poll tax. “President Clinton and I both called it a poll tax, and it’s heartening to hear that the judge agreed,” Attorney General Eric Holder told MSNBC on Tuesday morning. But by Tuesday afternoon, the rules changed again.
A federal appeals court reinstated Texas’ voter ID requirement, reasoning that last-minute changes to election law “disrupt the election process” and sow “voter confusion.” So Texans will now have to show photo ID to vote in this election, while the court may ultimately toss the requirement when it rules on the entire case in a few months. (The U.S. Supreme Court could also intervene, but that’s unlikely.)
If this all sounds complicated for election buffs, it will be even harder for voters to figure out.
Part of the problem is that the Supreme Court has been focusing more on the timing of alleged voter suppression than crafting clear rules on the suppression itself. The court has taken a hard line against these 9th-inning changes to voting rules, whether the changes expand ballot access or restrict it.
The justices, for example, temporarily blocked a last-minute voter ID requirement in Wisconsin, while allowing restrictions on voting times in North Carolina. As one judge in the Texas case explained on Tuesday, the “only constant principle” in all these decisions is that the Supreme Court doesn’t like changing voting rules too “close in time to the election.”
That’s reasonable enough. But it doesn’t get to the deeper problem.
Why are there so many changes to how we vote in the first place? Why are there so many successful legal challenges to these changes? Is this even normal for a healthy democracy?
It’s worth remembering that, for most of U.S. history, no identification was required to vote on Election Day. During that time, from roughly 1776 to 2005, there were no worries about people impersonating registered voters at the polls.
That is because mobilizing thousands of people to illegally impersonate other voters is an unfathomable way to swing an election. It has never happened. It’s more far-fetched than the plot of “Gone Girl.” Yet over the past decade, Republican legislatures erected voter ID requirements in a majority of the states — all to combat this phantom menace.
Before most of those laws were in effect, the Supreme Court took an early voter ID case in 2008. It ruled that ID requirements are theoretically acceptable — if they’re not expensive and don’t overly burden the right to vote.
Over the next six years, however, the evidence has poured in showing many of these laws do create expensive, burdensome requirements. They are also often discriminatory — restricting seniors, minorities and the poor more than other voters. That is why so many judges, even in conservative states, keep ruling against these laws.
While judges focus on scrutinizing the laws, it’s getting harder for Republicans to continue claiming that election turnout or the facts support serious concerns over voter fraud.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency that reports to Congress, recently tackled the “election integrity” issue in a 206-page report reviewing independent academic studies, crime statistics and information from federal and state authorities.
Tally up all the voter fraud found by all those sources and you get a number statistically equivalent to zero. The report noted “few instances of in-person voter fraud” have been documented, citing academic studies that calculate a rate ranging from 0.1 percent to 0 percent.
The report also noted that, depending on the state, voter ID rules can depress turnout by up to 3 percentage points. That is a wider margin than two of the last four presidential elections.
Even if the Supreme Court doesn’t fashion a stricter test, the politics of voter ID are about to shift for Republicans anyway.
While midterms are about exciting the base, no Republican can win nationally in 2016 without peeling off some of President Barack Obama’s most loyal voting blocs – young people, Latinos and black voters. Each of these groups backed Obama’s reelection by more than 20 points. Republicans need to trim that edge to be competitive. Making it harder for these people to vote is a tough way to start the conversation.
Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) touched on that looming problem this year, saying that by going “crazy on this voter ID thing,” Republicans were “offending people.” That drew blowback from some conservatives, leading Paul to further explain himself to conservative commentator Sean Hannity. “Republicans should be emphasizing the good things we’re trying to do to try to help minorities vote,” Paul said, “instead of the things many minorities feel is directed at them, rightly or wrongly.” Paul added that there was no reason to overemphasize “something that is turning people off.”
There are many better reasons to roll back laws that unfairly burden the right to vote. In the end, however, it may actually be politics that fortifies our democracy here.
PHOTO (Top): Poll worker Catherine Smith looks over a voter ID at the Cottageville Municipal Complex during the presidential election in Cottageville, South Carolina, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Randall Hill
PHOTO (INSERT 1): A poll worker looks at voter authorization forms and provisional ballots after the polls closed at the Covenant Presbyterian Church during the presidential election in Charlotte, North Carolina, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Keane
PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Lyndon B. Johnson talking with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, March 18, 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department in Washington, December 19, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron