by Félix Pérez & Algance Mahdjoub/image courtesy of Jenni Konrad
ALEC-inspired voter ID laws suffered three setbacks recently in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, but voting rights experts caution the decisions do not mark the end of partisan attempts to make it more difficult for minorities, students and the elderly to vote.
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John Rogowski, a political science professor at Washington University in St Louis, did not mince words when asked whether the legal findings would curtail state legislative activity to limit voting rights:
No, absolutely not. There have been various provisions throughout the past years and a few legal challenges. But to me it will not prevent the end of these laws. Their promoters will just find other ways to implement them.
According to a study coauthored last year by Rogowski, 72.9 percent of black young adults were asked for an ID at voting polls, compared with 60.8 percent of Latino youth and 50.8 percent of white youth.
For his part, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman in Wisconsin, in a pointed 90-page ruling issued April 29, noted the state’s inability to “point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past.” Adelman characterized the law, enacted by Gov. Scott Walker, as “imposing a unique burden” on the approximately 300,000 Wisconsin registered voters who do not have a qualifying ID.
Adelman said the law “creates a political process in which white voters, who are more likely to already possess qualifying IDs than black and Latino voters, will not face the deterrent effect of having to obtain an ID that they would not obtain but for the requirement to present it at the polls, while blacks and Latinos who wish to vote and who lack qualifying IDs must pay the cost, in the form of time or bother or out-of-pocket expense.”
In Pennsylvania, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley reaffirmed his earlier opinion, in which he ruled that the law there, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, unconstitutionally disenfranchises large numbers of voters. At trial, the state admitted there is no evidence of voter fraud in Pennsylvania.
And in Arkansas, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox last month found a voter ID law “void and unenforceable,” ruling that it violated a state constitutional provision that “[n]o power, civil or military, shall ever interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.”
Jennifer Clark, Democracy Program counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, called the rulings “exciting” but, like Rogowski, cautioned that “it’s difficult to say we’ve turned a corner.” Clark said the number of state laws passed in recent years restricting the franchise is second only to the numer enacted during the reconstruction period after the Civil War.
Not only do the last six to eight years represent a low point in access to the voting booth, the United States does not fare well in international comparisons. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists concluded in a study released this week that the states with the new voting regulations are among “the most restrictive voting environments in the world.”
No group has been as active in pushing voter ID laws as ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. An organization through which politicians and corporate lobbyists vote on bills behind closed doors in posh settings, ALEC approved model voter ID legislation in 2009 that bears striking similarity to many state laws.
Nevertheless, Clark and Rogowski take heart in the growing trend of young adults participating in the electoral process. Clark said:
There’s a very strong sense of community coming of age right now among young people, even if they’re personally frustrated. It’s important that those who care about the franchise remain vigilant and share their stories. Everyone has to work to ensure that everybody who is eligible to vote has access.