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A Board of Elections volunteer watches people cast their ballots during early voting October 23, 2008 in Savannah, Georgia.
If it’s presidential campaign season, it must be time for another furor over voter fraud and voter suppression.
As the Democrats did in 2008, they are again charging that Republicans are trying to use photo identification laws and other changes in election laws to winnow out would-be Democratic voters.
The difference this time: six more states have enacted laws, or strengthened their existing laws, requiring voters to show a form of photo identification such as a driver’s license in order to cast a ballot.
The standout among the new voter ID states: Wisconsin, which may have a recall election next year for Republican Gov. Scott Walker. It also has a marquee Senate race and will likely be a battleground in the presidential race.
Last week Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz launched a new mobilization effort, saying, “Republicans across the country have engaged in a full-scale attack on the right to vote, seeking ways to restrict or limit voters’ ability to cast their ballots for their own partisan advantage.”
The strategy, she contended, disproportionally affects African-Americans, Latinos, and young people and could “skew the 2012 presidential election in the Republicans’ favor.”
Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights Thomas Perez said last week that Justice Department lawyers are reviewing some of the recently-enacted state laws to ensure that they comply with the Voting Rights Act and do not have “a racially discriminatory purpose or discriminatory effect.”
Advocates of broader voting rights are looking forward to a speech on voting next week by Attorney General Eric Holder. “We’ve been pushing him hard to do that because we think it is a national crisis,” said Laura Murphy, the director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The big question is what will the Justice Department do – and that’s why we’re so excited about the attorney general’s upcoming speech.”
Murphy, Wasserman Shultz and the Democrats confront one big obstacle: the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision handed down in 2008 and written by Justice John Paul Stevens, upheld Indiana’s photo identification law.
“There is no question about the legitimacy or importance of the State’s interest in counting only the votes of eligible voters,” Stevens said.
The decision left open the possibility that future plaintiffs could try to show that, as applied in specific cases, a voter ID law is unconstitutional.
“While the cases that ACLU is bringing are much harder now, we’re still bringing them,” litigating in a number of states to challenge photo ID laws, Murphy said. “But these cases are expensive and time-consuming because we have to provide data to show the disparate impact of these voting laws.”
And she said, “It would be a long shot for the Supreme Court to hear and decide a case before the election.”
Even if the Justice Department challenged the Wisconsin law or other photo ID laws, it’s not likely that the litigation would be resolved prior to Election Day.
While the litigation plays out in court rooms and inside the Justice Department, the battle continues in the political arena as Democrats to try to motivate voters.
It’s true that Republican-controlled state legislatures and Republican governors in Wisconsin, Kansas and other states have enacted photo identification laws.
But the Democrats’ argument that the voter identification effort is a purely Republican scheme got a setback last summer when Rhode Island, a state with a heavily Democratic legislature, an independent governor and a Democratic chief election official, Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, enacted a new voter ID requirement.
The Rhode Island law allows a wider variety of forms of ID than laws do in Georgia and other states. And voters can vote by provisional ballot which will be counted if the signature on it matches the one on the voter’s registration form.
Mollis said, “I think this is a bill the Democratic national party should be looking to embrace. Because I think they need to join the movement that people should be providing IDs at the polling place, but not disenfranchising voters. I think they would benefit by doing that.”
In the turnout debate, the unspoken assumption sometimes seems to be that higher turnout always benefits Democratic candidates. It isn’t true.
In the nine states which George W. Bush had won in 2004 but Barack Obama won in 2008, turnout as a percentage of citizen voting-age population went up in five, (Virginia, Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, and North Carolina) but went down in four (Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, and Ohio).
In fact according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, nationwide voter turnout in 2008 was “not statistically different” from 2004. About 64 percent of voting-age citizens voted in both elections and yet Obama won in 2008 with the largest popular vote percentage of any Democratic candidate in 44 years.
Sometimes higher turnout benefits the Republican candidate -- take, for example, the hotly contested states of Ohio and Iowa in the 2004 presidential election. Compared to the 2000 election, turnout as a percentage of citizen voting-age population was up in both states and Bush won both of them.
Of course, it’s who votes that makes all the difference. Research by political scientists Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler showed that on issues such as making it easier for labor unions to organize workers and federal aid to education, non-voters were more liberal in their leanings than voters were. Denver University political scientist Seth Masket said, “That suggests that if everyone voted, Democrats would do better in elections.”
Masket said, “Adopting stricter voter identification laws can depress turnout slightly, or maybe not at all. The key question is, who is being dissuaded from turning out?”
In any event, it has yet to be proven that photo identification requirements deter would-be voters and suppress turnout, either overall or among minority voters.
A study by political scientists Robert Erickson and Lorraine Minnite, who say “our sympathies lie with the plaintiffs in the voter ID cases,” found nevertheless that “the data are not up to the task of making a compelling statistical argument” that voter ID laws deter turnout or have a disproportionate impact on some types of voters.
In fact, after enactment of Indiana’s strict photo identification law in 2006 and Georgia’s in 2007, voter turnout went up – not down.
In Georgia, where voters indicate their race or ethnicity on voter registration forms, the number of African-American voters in the 2008 election increased by more than 40 percent over the 2004 election.
One could argue that was only because Obama was on the 2008 ballot and the Obama campaign had made extraordinary turnout efforts.
But compare two elections in which Obama wasn’t on the ballot, the 2010 midterm congressional elections with the 2006 midterms, which took place before the photo ID laws were in effect.
In Indiana, turnout was 22 percent higher in 2010, after photo ID, than in 2006.
In Georgia, total turnout in the 2010 midterms was 19 percent higher than in 2006.
And 44 percent more African-American voters cast ballots in the 2010 midterms in Georgia than in 2006.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican said, “All these critics and these reports that are saying that people are going to be disenfranchised -- they have no hard data. They’re speculating. When you look at our numbers, we know, because we’ve been doing this since 2007, we know that minority participation has actually increased since photo ID laws were put in place.”