by Félix Pérez
Politicians following the ALEC playbook have been especially busy in the last 6-8 years passing laws and implementing administrative changes that make it harder for certain citizens to vote. In some cases, they have succeeded; in others, they have been dealt major setbacks by courts that have held that the laws place a disproportionate burden on poor people, blacks, Latinos and students.
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The ante has been raised yet again with the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent announcement that it plans to join lawsuits in Ohio and Wisconsin. The department in the past year has initiated two legal challenges — one in North Carolina and the other in Texas — charging that their new voting laws violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits laws that “disproportionately restrict access to the ballot box for minority voters.”
The lawsuits by the Department of Justice are in response to a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last June in Shelby County v. Holder in which the court, in a widely panned decision, struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act that required certain cities and states with histories of discrimination to get preclearance on voting law changes.
Since then, the Department of Justice has shifted its resources to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. In a Department of Justice video, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said:
[Section 2] empowers the Justice Department to protect the right of every American to cast a ballot unencumbered by discriminatory rules, regulations and procedures that, unintentionally or not, discourage and disenfranchise. . . We will simply not stand by as the voices of many citizens are shut out of the process of self-governance.
Wisconsin made news in April when a federal judge ruled that the state’s voter ID law, enacted by Gov. Scott Walker, was “imposing a unique burden” on the approximately 300,000 Wisconsin registered voters who do not have a qualifying ID. Speaking to the claim made by Wisconsin politicians that the law was designed to prevent voter fraud, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman, in a stinging 90-page ruling, 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.”
Other politicians have defended restrictive voter ID laws with the same anti-fraud rationale.
Problem is, as was the case in Wisconsin, they have produced no evidence to back up their claims. The two most comprehensive national investigations of voter fraud to date, one conducted over five years by the U.S. Justice Department under President George W. Bush and the other by the nonpartisan U.S. General Accountability Office, concluded that voter fraud happens rarely. The Justice Department report found most of the isolated instances involved individuals who mistakenly filled out registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules.
One common denominator in the growth of voter ID laws is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive organization through which politicians and corporate lobbyists vote on bills behind closed doors. ALEC approved model voter ID legislation in 2009 that bears striking similarity to many state laws.
If not fraud, what then is the motivation behind the spate of restrictive voting laws?
Wisconsin Republican state Senator Dale Schultz offered one possible answer. He said the Republican Party was “fiddling with mechanics rather than ideas,” adding, “Making it more difficult for people to vote is not a good sign for a party that wants to attract more people.”
Attorney General Holder, meanwhile, said the U.S. government “will continue to take aggressive steps to stand again against disenfranchisement wherever it exists and in whatever form.”