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Barbara Arnwine

Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, condemns photo ID voter laws with Jesse Jackson and members of Congress on July 13, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Suppressing the Vote

New ID laws combat an imaginary crime wave.

BY Roger Bybee

Voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in America, but this imaginary crime still serves to justify a wave of onerous new voter registration laws–often requiring a state-issued photo ID–that Republican legislators have rapidly spread across the nation. The implications for the 2012 elections are huge.

“The overall idea is pretty obvious,” says Frances Fox Piven, author of three books outlining America’s unusually harsh and restrictive voting laws. “Both parties expect close elections in 2012, and if you peel off just a couple percentage points, you can determine the outcome.”

Piven points to Wisconsin, where protests over a law passed earlier this year rendering public-employee unions toothless were followed by the imposition of a restrictive voter ID law by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican majorities in the state legislature. “We saw labor protests of unprecedented size and intensity over limiting their voice as workers,” Piven says. “And then [protesters] were greeted with a law to limit their power electorally, too.”

With the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promoting voter identification, eight other states also passed restrictive new laws this year, bringing the total number of states with such laws to 30. Another 16 states have seen similar ID laws introduced in 2011. Only a veto in June by New Hampshire’s Gov. John Lynch (D) prevented the passage of a law using residency requirements to diminish the voting of, as the state’s House Speaker William O’Brien (R) described them, “liberal” students.

On its website, ALEC–whose funders include billionaires David and Charles Koch (Scott Walker’s second-largest source of direct contributions)–describes how a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision makes it easy to impose new restrictions on voting rights: There “was no requirement that Indiana show prior evidence of impersonation fraud in Indiana to justify a voter ID law.”

Indeed, such evidence is nonexistent. Federal records “show that only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005,” according to “The Politics of Fraud,” a Project Vote report written by political scientist Lorraine Minnite. Similarly, the Brennan Center for Justice concluded, “It’s more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

But Republicans have dismissed the absence of evidence and instead are striking with lightning-like speed to ram through stringent new requirements for voting. The Wisconsin law, which requires state-issued voter IDs, voter signatures, longer residency requirements and other procedural barriers to voting, was described by Common Cause State Director Jay Heck as “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation.” The new law will make it much harder for those who lack driver’s licenses, which includes 23 percent of elderly Wisconsinites, 59 percent of Latina women and 78 percent of African-American men ages 18 to 24. These people will need to acquire state-issued photo identification to vote. Existing photo IDs for students fail to meet the new standard.

Wisconsin State Sen. Timothy Carpenter (D-3rd District) has already heard from senior citizens who have encountered difficulty while presenting the proper documents to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which is supposed to issue free voter IDs. “It’s a passion for senior citizens to vote, but a lot of people are being slapped back,” he said.

Genevieve Winslow, an 83-year-old widow in frail health living with her son Jeffrey in Milwaukee, Wis., spent 90 minutes at a DMV office in July and came away exasperated. “She came with her Social Security card in the name of Genevieve, her Medicare card in the name of Genevieve, a certified copy of her marriage certificate from 1948 in the name of Genevieve … and perhaps most important, an expired passport issued in 1987 in the name of Genevieve,” recounts her son. But because her birth certificate featured the Polish version of her name, she walked away without a new ID.

“The easiest thing for mom would be to get a new passport, which would be quite expensive [$135]. But we live on her Social Security payment,” Jeffrey Winslow says. “It’s not a happy situation, but she’s determined for them not to take away her vote.”

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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