Conservative iconography is saturated with references to America’s democratic tradition. From Charles and David Koch’s political action committee, Americans for Prosperity, which uses the Statue of Liberty’s torch for its logo, to the ubiquitous presence of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence at tea party rallies, it is commonplace for conservatives to drape themselves in the flag and proclaim their allegiance to our nation’s founding documents.
But lately, conservative lawmakers across the country have launched a drive that not only contradicts this rhetoric but strikes at the fundamental basis for representative government in America: They are pursuing a raft of measures that will restrict voters’ access to the polls.
A heated debate about voter ID laws — measures that require voters to take government-issued identification to the polls — has been taking place for several years. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 upheld the constitutionality of these local voter ID laws, but even the justices were deeply divided on the question; civil liberties groups continue to argue that, as with the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow South, these laws result in the disenfranchisement of poor people and people of color. However, conservatives have now opened another front in the war on the vote with a slate of recent laws that attack provisions such as early voting.
On March 27, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that eliminates weekend and nighttime early voting; this follows a 2011 move to cut early voting periods in half. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich signed a law on Feb. 21 that bars anyone except the secretary of state from mailing absentee ballots to voters.
In a difficult economy, working people are putting in long hours and trying to juggle the burdens of job and family. At such a time, we should be expanding voting opportunities to make it easier for them to exercise their rights.
Instead, conservatives are seeking to narrow the electorate. Their actions in Wisconsin and Ohio are part of a wider trend. According to New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, 92 bills that restrict access to the vote were introduced in 33 states by the end of 2013. In the first month of this year, 49 restrictive laws were already being discussed on 19 statehouse floors.
Integrity or suppression?
Lawmakers say their reason for creating greater restrictions on voting is to ensure the integrity and uniformity of the electoral process. As North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory stated last year when signing an extreme voter suppression initiative that effectively disenfranchised 318,000 registered North Carolina voters: “The common sense election reforms I just signed into law will protect the integrity of one of the most precious rights guaranteed in our state constitution, the right to vote.”
However, there is no actual evidence that these initiatives eliminate fraud or otherwise create more fair and transparent elections. What these measures do achieve is discourage participation in our democracy — a fundamentally un-American and inherently undemocratic goal. Experience shows that laws limiting early voting, restricting registration and requiring specific forms of identification all decrease voter turnout. And conservative claims about voter fraud don’t hold up to serious scrutiny. In an expansive review of fraud allegations, Justin Levitt of the Brennan Center writes, “Allegations of widespread voter fraud, however, often prove greatly exaggerated” and that “on closer examination, many of the claims of voter fraud amount to a great deal of smoke without much fire.
A vote is a vote, whether it’s cast on Sunday night or Monday morning.
Even if the rationale for preventing fraud were a valid reason to require greater identification from voters, what reason could conservatives possibly have for restricting early voting?
In Wisconsin, where one of the most recent restrictions was passed, politicians have resorted to the idea of fairness. Wisconsin state Sen. Glen Grothman recently said, “The idea that some communities should have weekend or night voting is obviously unfair,” while Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos claimed his state’s measure will “maintain fairness in our elections.”
But this is hardly a serious proposition. A vote is a vote, whether it’s cast on Sunday night or Monday morning. If Wisconsin Republicans are worried that some communities don’t have fair access to the ballot box, the solution they should offer is not to further restrict voting opportunities but to expand ballot access across the state.
New Jim Crow
Measures such as the ones proposed in Wisconsin disproportionately affect elderly, low-income, Latino and African-American communities, which tend to vote for Democratic Party candidates. Polling stations in more densely populated urban areas are often plagued by long lines and a lack of poll workers. Shortening early voting periods and eliminating weekend voting will only intensify existing inequalities, leaving members of urban communities unable to freely exercise their rights.
Whatever reasons politicians claim to have as motives, the effect of these measures is to suppress the vote, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. Studies show that the new voting restrictions in North Carolina could affect up to 600,000 people who lack the limited forms of ID now required. A disproportionate number of those affected are African-American.
Like voter ID laws, restrictions on early and weekend voting have a disproportionate effect on African-Americans and working-class citizens. As The New York Times put it, “weekend voting [is] favored by low-income voters and blacks, who sometimes caravan from churches to polls on the Sunday before election.”
These laws also hinder Latino citizens from exercising their rights. According to a 2012 report from civil rights advocacy group the Advancement Project, “the number of eligible Latino citizens that could be affected by [voter ID laws and registration restrictions] exceeds the margin of victory of the 2008 presidential election.”
Although those who support measures that suppress the vote regularly invoke their all-American values, in fact they are promoting a deeply cynical and partisan agenda. Is it a coincidence that those groups of voters most deterred by new voter restrictions happen to be important parts of the Democratic Party’s base?
For groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council, measures that restrict ballot access are one point in a larger agenda. The states in which Republican governors are passing restrictions on voting — such as Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina — are the same places where conservative lawmakers have tried to roll back people’s voice in the workplace, curtailing union rights and inhibiting employees’ opportunities to have collective representation. Taken together, these efforts align with a vision of America that concentrates political power in the hands of a wealthy few.
Most offensive of all is that the same wealthy donors restricting the influence of regular voters are also actively seeking to expand the power of money in politics, supporting Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United v. FEC, which eliminated restrictions on independent political expenditures by corporations, associations and labor unions.
Conservative billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers and the politicians they support have every right to debate their views. Like all other citizens in our democracy, they should enjoy the freedom to present their opinions in the public sphere. But when their agenda involves expanding the already enormous influence of big money in politics while limiting access to the polls by ordinary citizens, their actions become a cynical assault on the American system and American values they purport to uphold.