The Republican Push to Make It Harder to Vote

Laws like North Carolina's draconian new voter-ID laws are a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. But voter backlash could be fierce.

"Moral Monday" protestors outside the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

Within 20 minutes of the Supreme Court's decision overturning a portion of the Voting Rights Act, the attorney general of Texas tweeted a message signaling that strict voter-ID laws would go into effect there immediately.

"I'll fight #Obama's effort to control our elections," Greg Abbott, who just announced he's running for governor of Texas, tweeted June 25, the day the 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder was released. Unless the law can be successfully challenged in court, Texas residents will now have to show a state- or federal-issued form of photo identification to vote. The list of acceptable forms includes a concealed-handgun license but not a state university student ID. The omission suggests it is not voter fraud but voters unfriendly to the GOP that Abbott and other Texas Republicans are trying to thwart.  

Other states -- like Mississippi and Arkansas - that have GOP-controlled legislatures and a history of racial discrimination, and whose election laws have been supervised by the Department of Justice since the VRA's passage in 1965, have also wasted no time moving forward with new voting restrictions in the wake of the Shelby County decision.

But no state's action has been more dramatic than North Carolina, whose legislature last week passed what election-law experts have characterized as the most draconian and restrictive registration and voting law in the country.   

"It's just an audacious attempt on the part of Republicans to suppress the vote, it's just about as blatant as you can imagine," says Rep. David Price, a Democrat who represents the state's Research Triangle area, which includes Duke and the University of North Carolina. "You do wonder how they felt they could get away with it."

The North Carolina law is a grab bag of bad ideas. It not only institutes a government-issued photo-ID requirement for voting, similar to the Texas law, but also eliminates same-day voter registration and requires voters to register or update their address at least 25 days ahead of the election; reduces the early voting period by a week; abolishes a program to register high-school students in advance of their 18th birthdays; empowers partisan poll watchers with greater authority to challenge voters; and eliminates out-of-precinct voting. The law also weakens candidate disclosure and fundraising rules, thereby allowing unlimited corporate donations and abolishing the requirement that candidates endorse their own television ads.

"I've never seen a bill like North Carolina that makes it harder to register and vote - it's very brazen," says Richard Hasen, an election-law specialist and professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine. Hasen believes the law is so bad there will be a judicial and public backlash to overturn it and possibly the GOP legislature which passed it. "This will be seen as an overreach .... It's going to be challenged and some of its provisions will be struck down," he predicted.

U.S. Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, a Democrat up for reelection in 2014, agrees that the law is an overreach. "People are dumbfounded," Hagan says. "This has absolutely nothing to do with voter fraud."

Out of seven million votes cast in North Carolina's 2012 general and primary elections only 121 were identified as questionable, according to the state board of elections. The kind of voter fraud Republicans cite, including ineligible voters and non-citizens trying to vote, using a false identity, or attempting to vote multiple times happens so infrequently that it's statistically insignificant.

More than 50 percent of North Carolina voters used early voting last year. Under the new law the early voting period will be shortened to seven days. "It is clear that this law is going to make it more difficult for people in North Carolina to vote," Hagan says.

Critics of the law include justice and anti-discrimination groups, and even the Libertarian Party of North Carolina, which blasted the legislation in a statement: "Republicans claim to be the party of limited government. Now we see what that term really means: when Republicans say limited government, they apparently mean government limited to them and their supporters."

Voter ID has become a political flashpoint as well as shorthand for trying to make it harder for certain groups, especially minorities and young people, to vote. Both parties use voter ID as a motivational tool with their bases, and nothing motivates voters like telling them someone wants to try to take away their right to cast a ballot.

Polls show a majority of Americans support requiring an official ID to vote. And on the face of it voter-ID laws seem innocuous given how often one is asked to show an ID post-9/11.

For anyone who drives a car the reaction is probably what's the big deal? But stringent photo-ID laws single out college students, urban residents, and the elderly: people who are less likely to hold driver's licenses and for whom the process of getting an acceptable alternative can be costly or cumbersome and can discourage voting.

Still, the risk that a large number of voters will be disenfranchised is probably just as exaggerated as the threat of voter fraud, Hasen says. "It's less of a problem than many on the left say it is," he says. "Democrats have all kinds of partisan reasons to claim it's a bigger problem than it is. They can use it to get out the vote and fundraise."

Experts like Hasen agree that the kind of fraud that can affect election outcomes involves phony absentee ballots and poll-worker fraud - scams that both parties have been responsible for.

"If they are really concerned about fraud they should be looking at how to insure the integrity of absentee ballots, but that's not on the Republican agenda," says Hasen.

The Pennsylvania voter-ID law was specifically cited by Republicans as an electoral aide. In 2012, the GOP state house leader said the law was "going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." (He was wrong.) "It was just designed to help Republicans and suppress turnout of minorities and older citizens," said former Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat. "It's abominable." 

The Pennsylvania law is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. There are legal challenges in Texas as well, and last week the Justice Department filed a statement of interest in a Texas case asking a federal court to require state officials to receive advance approval before making the Texas redistricting plan permanent citing the remaining sections of the VRA.

In a speech last week Attorney General Eric Holder said Texas has a history of "pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities."

The DOJ request falls under a different VRA clause than the one struck by the Supreme Court ruling. The federal government is also likely to take similar action in North Carolina and other states if Congress does not act.

Texas State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio, is the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, the lead plaintiff in the Texas redistricting case. He attended a White House meeting this week held to discuss how the DOJ plans to move forward in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. Holder and President Obama met with civil and voting-rights advocates, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and state representatives from Georgia, Florida, and Alabama.

Martinez Fischer says Holder assured those at the meeting that the Department of Justice plans to intervene in potential civil- and voting-rights abuses.

In an attempt to stop the Texas voter-ID law from going into effect, Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey and a group of voters have filed a lawsuit in federal court. The DOJ could possibly join that suit as well.

Martinez Fischer contends that attempts by Republican state legislatures to limit voting are part of an overall national strategy. "These things aren't invented by Republican state law makers they are hatched in conservative laboratories and distributed across the country," he says. "This is the new electioneering. It's not a contest about who can turn out the most voters, now it's a combination of getting people to vote and Republicans trying to prevent people from voting."

Making voting easier is the right thing to do. Instead of throwing up barriers to voting, officials should be trying to make it as easy to vote as possible by simplifying the registration process, allowing online registration and offering alternative and more convenient ways to cast a ballot.

But it's also the politically wise choice. Plenty of voters across the country already have first-hand experience with long lines at polling places and malfunctioning voting machines. They will have little patience for blatant attempts to make it even more difficult to cast a ballot and will punish those responsible.