States Crack Down on Voter Access—Time to Fight Back

In state capitals across the country, the legislators who should be accountable to voters are busy pushing ways to keep more voters away from the polls. Harsh crackdowns on voting are a disturbing trend that could block millions from exercising their basic rights.

Behind these laws is the heavily corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which wrote sample voter-restriction legislation for numerous states—legislation later introduced by state legislators who are members of ALEC. And they fall hardest on young voters, elderly voters, minorities and those struggling economically—the people whose voices are already too frequently excluded from the political conversation, drowned out by corporate interests like those who fund ALEC.

This isn’t a tricky issue. Voting is the fundamental building block of participatory democracy. Everyone should have access to it, without having to jump through hoops or pay to take part. (That’s why restoring democracy by ensuring full voting rights is one of the 9 Demands of the 99 Percent.)

Fortunately, there are some signs of pushback against the war on voting. On Saturday, thousands marched in New York to demand full and fair voter access. The League of Women Voters and the NAACP are among the organizations fighting for voting rights. And this evening, Attorney General Eric Holder is making a major address on the need to ensure that those who want to vote can.

Across the country, instead of fighting for good jobs, state legislators are spending their time on unnecessary, undemocratic roadblocks to voting. In Michigan, the state legislature is pushing new limits on voting and voter registration. In Wisconsin, a schoolteacher and an 84-year-old woman who has voted in every election since 1948 are the latest people to be ensnared by the state’s new voter ID law. In New Hampshire, the state House Speaker is blunt about the fact that he wants to put limits on young people’s participation because he doesn’t like how they vote. And in Pennsylvania, where the legislature is looking at limits on voter access, the Philadelphia Daily News rightly notes:

It seems to us that the state should find some evidence that fraud is a problem before embracing a solution that will make it harder for some folks to vote — and cost a bunch of money, too.

These limits on voter access are justified with tales of large-scale “voter fraud” that are, to put it generously, misleading.

There are many serious studies that have looked at whether vote fraud is really an occurrence that commonly happens and commonly distorts elections—and the evidence says the answer is no. A New Mexico study found the rate of fraudulent registration was less than one ten thousandth of one percent and the rate of actual fraudulent voting was around two hundred thousandths of a percent. An investigation into suspected voter fraud by Maine’s Attorney General found exactly zero actual infractions. A study of Wisconsin in 2004 found only seven cases of fraud out of 3 million votes cast. (Even the people who want to push the voter fraud myth can’t seem to come up with significant numbers.) These are just not the kind of numbers that indicate a public policy problem, especially one that could deter so many legitimate voters from participating.

Indeed, the Brennan Center—which has done great work on examining claims about voting—found that harsher rules on voter registration and access to the polls could prevent up to 5 million people from participating. The push for voter ID laws is like amputating an arm to tackle the problem of a chipped fingernail.

Thankfully, in Ohio, the legislature’s proposed limits on voter access will go to the voters as a referendum before they take effect. Other states might not be so lucky, and we could see the next election marred by deliberate efforts to undercut the high levels of participation we saw in 2008.

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