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August 5, 2012 6:06 pm
Millions of US voters could be turned away at the ballot box in this November’s presidential election as new rules impose tough requirements for identification that observers say could lead to minorities and young people – traditionally more likely to vote Democrat – being excluded.
Almost all the new rules have been enacted in states with Republican governors and GOP-led legislatures. From Wisconsin to Texas, they have passed strict legislation requiring voters to present certain forms of government-issued identification instead of the usual voter registration cards.
In hotly contested swing states such as Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Hampshire, the changes could affect the outcome. Pennsylvania’s authorities says more than 750,000 registered voters in the state – 9.2 per cent of voters – do not have the required forms of ID, such as a driving licence or other government-issued photo ID, to vote in November. President Barack Obama won the state by 600,000 votes in 2008 and polls show the vote hangs in the balance this year.
“There is certainly the potential for very serious outcomes,” said Keesha Gaskins of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which estimates as many as 5m voters across the country might be affected by the rules.
Pennsylvania’s new rules are being challenged by three elderly women – including one who first voted for Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1940s – who say they will not be able to vote in November under the changes.
Ten states have passed voter ID laws since 2010, although not all are yet in effect. Several states, including Texas, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, had to apply for approval from the justice department before they could implement the changes because they are subject to the Voter Rights Act, a 1965 law covering states with a history of discriminating against minorities.
The department has blocked all the changes proposed by those states, which require particular forms of photo ID, partly because Hispanic voters would be disproportionately affected. Eric Holder, the attorney general, has likened the Texas law to a poll tax.
President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign has denied Republican claims it is trying to curb military voting, with a senior campaign official on Sunday saying the allegations were “false and misleading”.
The president’s team filed a lawsuit last week to block a new Ohio law that would give military personnel three days more than the general public to cast early votes. It said it wanted everyone, not just those in the military, to have longer to vote
But Republicans have attacked the move as an assault on the military.
“President Obama’s lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional for Ohio to allow servicemen and women extended early voting privileges during the state’s early voting period is an outrage,” Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential hopeful, said in a Facebook post on Saturday
But David Axelrod, a senior Obama campaign strategist, said it was “shameful that Governor Romney would hide behind our servicemen and women to try and win a lawsuit and deprive other Ohioans of the right to vote”.
“Why don’t they want to make it easier for every eligible voter to come to the polls and participate? That’s what our servicemen and women are fighting for,” Mr Axelrod said on Fox News Sunday.
Ohio’s law would allow members of the armed forces to vote up until the Monday before an election, while the rest of the public must submit their votes three days earlier.
According to the Democrats’ lawsuit, 1.7m votes – or 30 per cent – were cast in Ohio during early voting in 2008, About 93,000 of those were cast during the three days before the election, it said.
The changes in many states effectively mean legislators are trying to “cherry pick” voters, Ms Gaskins said. For example, in Tennessee, faculty members at the state university can use their college-issued ID cards to vote but students at the same university cannot.
Students in Texas would not be able to use their state university ID cards either, but the state would accept voters with permits to carry concealed weapons.
The battleground of Florida has brought in less strict laws than its neighbours – it does not require photo ID – but the Republican-led state sued for access to a federal law enforcement database so it could challenge those suspected of not being US citizens.
The changes across the country are ostensibly aimed at preventing voter fraud. Although some Democratic-led states, such as Rhode Island, have introduced restrictions, some observers say the changes are politically motivated to help Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney win in November.
Mike Turzai, the Republican leader in Pennsylvania’s house of representatives, admitted as much recently, rattling off a list of his party’s accomplishments. “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” he said in a speech to fellow Republicans, according to local reports.
The partisanship during the legislative process “can’t be denied”, said Nancy Abudu of the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights project. “The pretext is to suppress minorities, students, poor people,” she said, listing groups that generally vote Democrat.
Many of the changes have been influenced by the redistricting that has taken place following the 2010 census, which has seen the congressional map in many states redrawn to reflect population growth. For example, Texas is now majority Latino.
But Republicans are crying political foul too. Following the justice department’s decision last month to block the proposed laws in Texas and South Carolina, some Republicans have accused the Obama administration of being more worried about electoral victory than voter fraud.
“The department of justice has embarrassed itself. The partisan bias is obvious,” said Trent Franks, a Republican lawmaker from Arizona.
In fact, voter fraud is extremely rare, Ms Abudu said. In the Pennsylvania court challenge, the state legislature’s lawyers did not even make the argument that the rules were needed to prevent people misrepresenting themselves, saying that they were “not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud”.
Even in Florida, which became notorious for its “hanging chads” in 2000, only 178 cases of alleged voter fraud have since been referred to Florida’s department of law enforcement.
As Ion Sancho, who has supervised elections in Leon County for 24 years, put it: “You are more likely to walk out of your office and get hit by a bolt of lightning.”
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