Discussing voter disenfranchisement, Scott Lemieux writes, “It’s almost impossible to overstate how much this matters.” I agree. So today, I want to follow-up on Hilzoy’s excellent post on voter fraud with some thoughts of my own.
Our national voting system is a disgrace. And while sham “voter fraud” plays an important role, it’s only one slice of a much larger and more systemic problem. To understand the scope of the problem, you must first understand that voting consists of far more than merely showing up on Election Day. There are many different phases along the way – and vote suppression can and does occur at any one (or all) of these phases, from the registration process up through voting day.
Before I outline these different phases, I should say that almost all of the information in this post comes from the Brennan Center for Justice (NYU) and its tireless efforts to protect the vote and educate the public. In particular, today’s post relies on this powerpoint (pdf here), which was part of a larger Brennan Center presentation at an ACS event in DC last year (which was great).
As the powerpoint explains, there are five different methods that states are using (or could use) to suppress turnout of eligible voters: (1) restricting voter registration drives; (2) erecting barriers to getting on voter rolls; (3) purging existing voter rolls; (4) imposing voter ID and proof of citizenship requirements at the polls; and (5) failing to ensure electronic voting machine security. Note that these suppression efforts arise at different stages of the voting process, often months prior to Election Day.
#1 – Registration Drives. Some states’ restrictions on voter registration drives are so absurd and punitive that they are, frankly, hard to believe. According to the Brennan Center, these restrictions include imposing insanely high fines and even criminal penalties on voter registration groups for what are essentially administrative errors. In Florida, for instance, the legislature imposed the following fines on voter registration groups: (1) “$250 for each application submitted . . . more than ten days after the form was collected”; (2) “$500 for each application . . . submitted after the [registration] deadline”; (3) “$5,000 for each application collected but not submitted to election officials.” These potential penalties obviously make people think twice about initiating, or participating in, voter registration efforts.
The Brennan Center has documented similar efforts in other states. In Ohio, individual registration volunteers had to personally turn in the forms they collected. In other words, they couldn’t hand them to a supervisor to be turned in collectively. They had to walk them to the office themselves. In New Mexico, they went a step further. There, “groups are given only 48 hours to submit the forms they collect to the state board of elections or face criminal charges.”
The effects are obvious. States are either making voter registration efforts extremely risky, or are increasing their administrative costs. The net result is less voter registration. And again, all this happens well before Election Day and outside the (watchful, Sauron-like) eye of the media.
#2 – Barriers to the Voting Rolls. A second voter suppression strategy is to bar people (post-registration) from getting on the approved voting rolls. One common method is to require a voter’s registration information to perfectly match information maintained in other government databases (such as driving records). For instance, if your registration form doesn’t match the information on your driver’s license exactly, you could be barred from the voting rolls in some states. As the picture below illustrates, there are numerous reasons why this information might not “match.” (Click on these images for clearer views).
For a more comprehensive discussion of this strategy, check out this report.
#3 – Voting Purges. Unlike the previous two voter suppression strategies, this one actually got some press because of Florida’s infamous felon purges (we’ll come back to that). Voter roll purging is similar to the methods used to bar people from getting on the voting rolls in the first place. Once names are added to the voting rolls, the rolls can be cross-checked with other lists such as the felony conviction list. If you show up as a “felon,” you’re purged.
Even assuming that states administer these purges properly, the purges disproportionately affect minority and lower-income voters. But as you might expect, they aren’t administered properly. Indeed, errors can pop up in many different ways. For instance, and as the Brennan Center powerpoint documents, voters have been purged simply because two people with the same name voted in the same election (i.e., “double voting” purge). Other unfortunate people have been purged because they happen to share names with convicted felons. Others have been purged because they’re on the felon list improperly in the first place (e.g., if they committed a misdemeanor rather than a felony). And on it goes.
But the award for the most transparent attempt at voter suppression goes to Jeb Bush’s administration in 2004. (I wrote about this story back in the glory days of the Legal Fiction Media Empire.) In the build-up to the 2004 election, Florida attempted to purge tens of thousands of felons from the voting rolls. Interestingly, roughly half (46%) of the purged voters were African-Americans. Even more interestingly, practically zero (0.1%) were Latinos even though 12% of Florida’s convicted felons are Latinos. Here’s a chart that illustrates what I’m talking about:
Latinos (in Florida) of course generally favor Republicans. African-Americans, not so much.
#4 – Voter ID Requirements. This brings us to perhaps the most significant voting restriction of all -- voter ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements. With more than a little anti-immigrant rhetoric, voter ID laws are all the rage these days.
The upshot is that voting ID requirements require people on Election Day to show some form of presubscribed voter ID in order to vote. On its face, this requirement doesn’t sound ridiculous. But when you look more closely, you’ll see why people like Georgia Republican legislators tend to like the requirements so much. For one, obtaining “approved” identification can be expensive. As a result, people without drivers’ licenses tend to be “the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and people of color.” See also “The People Who Didn’t Drive Away From Katrina.” Needless to say, these groups tend to vote for Democrats.
The most egregious example of this form of voter suppression is the voting ID law passed by the Georgia legislature (which was stayed by courts). Citing rampant voter fraud, Georgia Republicans pushed through a law that curtailed and strictly limited the types of ID that voters could show at the polls. (This is why it’s so important to know whether “voter fraud” allegations are accurate – the Georgia law is where the rubber hits the road so to speak.) Anyway, the law provided that people without a driver's license could obtain a special state-issued ID card from a Georgia Department of Driver Services office. The catch though was that only 59 of Georgia’s 159 counties had such an office. Check out the Brennan Center chart:
If, say, you didn’t have a car, this would be a pretty big problem. See also “The People Who Didn’t Drive Away From Katrina.”
[On an interesting aside, the career DOJ lawyers concluded that the Georgia law violated the Voting Rights Act because of its effect on black voters. But in the Bush DOJ, that and $2 will get you a Grande coffee at Starbucks.]
#5 – Electronic Voting Security. I won’t say much about this because I think (or hope) that it’s hypothetical at this point. But it’s an issue that deserves serious attention.
So what is to be done? As I mentioned above, I think progressives suffer from a lack of imagination on voting rights reform. It’s time to start thinking about reform on an entirely different order of magnitude. Things like universal registration. Things like federal preemption and a nationwide voting eligibility regime enacted pursuant to the Fifteenth Amendment.
To be sure, the day-to-day efforts to fight purges or combat voter fraud allegations are important. But because voting suppression is a systemic problem, there’s a Whack-a-Mole element with respect to litigation and narrowly-focused reform. You might stop voter suppression in one phase only to see it pop up in another. That’s why it’s better to fix the whole thing all at once even if it takes decades to get there. And if it doesn’t work, it will at the very least shift the debate in a favorable direction.
With respect to this type of big picture reform, I haven’t thought through all the ins and outs. Consider me a big picture guy on this. But short of national registration laws, there are other more immediate steps we could take that would really help – many of which are outlined in this Brennan Center policy paper. These measures include weekend voting, barring prohibitions on registration groups, same day registration, transparent purge processes, and many others. As they say, read the whole thing.
I started with Scott Lemieux and so I’ll end with him -- “It's almost impossible to overstate how much this matters.” Amen to that.