New Voting Laws May Disenfranchise Millions of Americans

Voting statistics in America are often seen as an embarrassment. While we certainly have much lower levels of participation than the vast majority of first-world democracies (we rank behind almost every European country in voter registration), levels of voter participation have actually been on the rise since 1996.

This should be heartening. Yet, many states are trying to pass laws – laws requiring government issued IDs at the polls, limiting early voting, and discouraging voter registration drives – threatening these gains. States claim these policies will guard against fraud because they would provide more checks at the polls. Yet voter fraud is a virtual non-issue in U.S. elections and a dubious explanation for the time spent constructing and passing these laws. 

If we are to ensure that all people – regardless of race and socioeconomic status – remain enfranchised, the Department of Justice (DOJ) must recognize the danger these laws present and declare them in violation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which says that no state can “deny or abridge the right of any citizen … to vote on account of race or color."

There has been a steady rise in the number of voting-eligible persons voting since 1996. In the 2008 election especially, voter turnout reached a 40-year high, with more African-Americans voting than in previous years. Yet, many states are pushing new laws threatening these initiatives. For instance, five states downsized early voting programs, five states passed laws requiring government-issued photo IDs to vote, and Florida instituted new cumbersome laws discouraging nonpartisan voter registration drives. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman sums it up nicely, saying, “19 laws and two executive actions in 14 states dominated by Republicans, according to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice. As a result, more than five million eligible voters will have a harder time participating in the 2012 election.”

Who will those five million be? Inevitably, they will disproportionately be working-class or impoverished, and therefore disproportionately African-American. Why? First off, the most common form of government-issued IDs are driver’s licenses – yet, as Daniel Tokaji election law expert at Ohio State University, points out, “there is considerable evidence about who doesn’t have government-issued photo ID, which shows that certain groups – such as elderly, disabled, minority, and poor voters — are likely to be especially hard hit."

Furthermore, those with less education and income find it difficult to vote if they have only one chance to do so — on a Tuesday, during the workweek. A report undertaken by Census Bureau staff has confirmed that “Those who are more established in society are the most likely to register and vote — older individuals, homeowners, married couples, and people with more schooling, higher incomes, and good jobs.” Early voting makes voting easier. In 2008, the last presidential election year, over 31 million people voted early, out of around 132 million total voters.

Voter registration drives are also a crucial component because, while early voting provides more time to vote, time alone cannot increase voting among habitual nonvoters. In an analysis of voting in America, MIT researcher Adam Berinsky wrote, “To remedy the deficiencies of the American political system and increase turnout among habitual nonvoters, we must focus reform efforts on increasing the engagement of the electorate with the political world.” Voter registration drives are a critical aspect of engaging habitual nonvoters in the political process.

We may like to believe in an ideal world where individuals participate in the democratic process because voting matters. But this ignores the fact that state and national policies inevitably impact voting. If you make it harder to vote, less people will vote – it is a foregone conclusion.

Instituting laws that may disproportionately impact those of lower socioeconomic status, who are disproportionately African-American, contradicts the VRA. Why are we wasting time enacting barriers to voting, when voter fraud is virtually a non-problem? It is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that these states want to make it more difficult to vote. Krugman argues that these laws are an effort on Republican-controlled legislatures to discourage liberal-leaning voters from the polls. Regardless, the DOJ needs to recognize that these laws violate the VRA and prevent their passage.

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