Let Americans vote

Our democracy is under attack from within. Republicans (and it seems to be just Republicans) appear determined to deny citizens their constitutional right to vote. Oddly enough, those whose rights are being curtailed are disproportionately Democratic. The GOP view seems to be, “If you can’t win fair and square, change the rules — even cheat.”

Since 2010, 16 states have passed restrictions that could affect Election 2012. The abuses of democracy come in several forms. Ohio and Florida, among others, reduced early voting just as more and more citizens were availing themselves of that opportunity. Both states cut the number of early-voting days almost in half. Why? Florida’s former Republican chairman swore in court documents that suppressing the African-American vote was discussed by officials. 

Perhaps the most insidious weapon in the arsenal of those seeking to undermine the legitimacy of our elections is so-called “voter ID laws,” which require citizens to show government-issued (usually photo) identification in order to cast a ballot. Before 2006, not one state ever imposed such requirements. Now they are on the books in 10 states. 

Defenders argue (wrongly) that one needs a photo ID to drive a car or get on a plane. The problem: Some 11 percent of voters, or about 21 million people, don’t have photo IDs — including 18 percent of senior citizens and 25 percent of African-Americans. These folks don’t have a constitutional right to drive a car or get on a plane. However, our Constitution does guarantee that their right to vote shall not be abridged.

Moreover, the problem is concentrated in particular segments of the electorate. Pennsylvania recently announced that 9 percent of registered voters statewide did not have the required photo ID, compared to 18 percent of Philadelphians. Independent analysis suggests that as many as 43 percent of Philadelphia voters will be prevented from casting ballots because of the new law. Guess how Philadelphians tend to vote. I’ll bet the Republican governor and the Republican Legislature had no idea when they passed this law …

Obtaining IDs is not easy for everyone. Nearly 500,000 eligible voters in 10 states with restrictive voter ID laws live in households without vehicles and reside at least 10 miles from an ID-issuing office open more than two days a week, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice. In Sauk City, Wis., voters can get an ID card — but only on the fifth Wednesday of the month. In 2012, only February, May and August have a fifth Wednesday — leaving one more chance before November. 

Our Constitution specifically forbids denying the right to vote “by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.” Driver’s licenses and IDs cost money. And even when free IDs are available, there is a cost associated with the documents required for the application. Republicans, who call every fee a tax, no doubt make a singular exception for this one. Some states, most notoriously Wisconsin, have a policy of hiding the fact that free IDs are even available. A state employee there was fired for providing information about that option.

The excuse for denying so many people their rights is a largely nonexistent problem — voter fraud. After warning of a voter-fraud epidemic, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott launched an investigation that turned up a total of 26 cases. Of these, two-thirds were technical violations by eligible voters. The closely analyzed 2004 election in Ohio revealed a voter fraud rate of 0.00004 percent — about the frequency of people being struck dead by lightning. Indeed, another analysis by the Brennan Center reported that there is not a single documented instance of voter fraud that could have been prevented by a photo ID. 

Vote fraud undermines the integrity of elections. But so does disenfranchising eligible voters. The latter proves to be the much more serious problem and the more grievous harm.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.