By Amanda Litvinov
Let’s start with the good news: The American Legislative Exchange Council (better known as ALEC) announced last week that it is dismantling its controversial Public Safety and Elections Task Force, the body responsible for writing model legislation intended to hinder particular groups of citizens from voting and protects vigilantes with smoking guns in their hands. The move came after a steady stream of corporate backers—some of the most prominent corporations in America—pulled out as ALEC’s nefarious workings came under new scrutiny in the months after the tragic shooting of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin.
The bad news: The task force leaves a legacy of profound damage. We already mentioned Trayvon. And when it comes to the right to vote, it is estimated that 5 million eligible voters will have a more difficult time exercising that right in the 2012 election thanks to restrictive new ALEC-devised voter laws, passed in 22 states since the beginning of 2011. Another 74 such bills are still pending in 24 states.
Republican backers say these laws—which make it harder to register new voters, reduce early and absentee voting, and require government issued photo IDs that 21 million citizens do not have—are essential to prevent rampant voter fraud, but there are at least two problems with that argument:
- The voter fraud crisis they use as a scare tactic doesn’t exist.
- It’s a transparent effort to diminish voter participation from groups most likely to vote for Democratic candidates—college students, minority communities, and the elderly who rely on social programs Republicans are looking to substantially cut.
“At a time when middle class people have been forced to live with less stability in an economy stacked against them, we need to find ways to amplify their voices, not suppress them,” said Arizona teacher and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “To pass laws that threaten Americans’ ability to vote, targeting underserved and vulnerable communities, is to play an unconscionable political game.”
Teacher Jill Cicciarelli’s story is just one illustration of how these sneaky laws can block voters from the polls, in this case by diminishing opportunities to register new voters (who are often very young or new citizens). A civics teacher and faculty advisor of the student government association, Cicciarelli values being in a position to prepare her students to exercise their right to vote, both through the curriculum and an in-class voter registration drive. But last fall, she was informed that her effort to register young voters was a violation of a new law that demanded that she be certified in advance to register them. She was unaware that the law had been changed.
The Florida law also limits the timeframe for submitting voter registration paperwork to 48 hours, makes it more difficult for a citizen to change his or her voting address and shortens the state’s early voting period.
The fight to restore fairness: Restrictive photo ID laws have been blocked in Wisconsin and Texas, but they are still on the books in Tennessee, Kansas and South Carolina. (People who fail to understand why these laws pose a problem are people who have never lacked the resources necessary to get a government issued photo ID.) Research shows roughly 25 percent of African Americans and 18 percent of Americans 65 and older do not have a qualifying ID, and individuals making $25,000 or less are more than twice as likely to lack sufficient paperwork to obtain the necessary ID.
The NEA Student Program is one of the organizations working to raise awareness among college students on campuses across the country about how changes to state laws may compromise their vote in 2012.
There are things you can do to protect your right to vote and speak out against the group that would see that right taken from EdVotes readers:
- Go to our Voter Protection 2012 pagewhere you’ll find tools to help you discover whether voting laws changed in your state and help you register.
- Find out why the New York Times called ALEC a “stealth business lobbiest” and see what else the group is up to in your state at ALECexposed.org. There you can also sign the petition to keep the pressure on ALEC’s corporate members to pull out.
- Sign up for our weekly EdVotes newsletter to keep up with ALEC and other issues that matter to pro-public education voters.