A comprehensive new study by the Brennan Center for Justice is shedding light on a troubling new set of electoral laws that tighten restrictions on who can vote in the United States and how they can do it. The wave of new laws — almost all of which were sponsored and supported by Republican state legislators — promise to impact more than 5 million voters, the majority of whom are young, minority, and low-income voters, and many of the laws seem to be motivated by partisan politics.
Bills requiring photo ID to vote have been introduced in 34 states this year alone. The GOP has long raised vague concerns about “voter fraud” — during the 2008 election, the activist group ACORN was constantly blamed, without much evidence, for trying to steal the election on Obama’s behalf — but the push to wall off citizens from the ballot box has been turbocharged since the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party swept through last fall’s elections.
Seven states — Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin — have passed restrictive voter ID laws, with Republicans spearheading all but the Rhode Island bill. Texas goes as far to allow concealed weapons licensees for voting, but bars the use of student IDs. Similarly, in Wisconsin’s bill originally banned the use of student IDs to vote, but has since been amended to permit student IDs that meet a strict criteria. As a result, the University of Wisconsin system must spend and estimated $1.1 million to issue new ID cards to be used for voting purposes.
The bills threaten the voting rights of more than 21 million American citizens who do not posses a government-issued photo ID — remember, a Social Security card doesn’t count — and they are likely to especially affect the kind of low-income voters who tend to support Democrats. In Colorado, a bill that required voters to provide proof of citizenship struck many as anti-immigrant scare tactics, especially after critics debunked Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s that up to 11,805 non-citizens were registered to vote. Even if the false number was accurate, however, it’s still a tiny of fraction of the population in a state where more than 1.5 million people voted in last fall’s U.S. Senate election.
Other new laws are focused on making it more difficult to register to vote. Republican legislators in seven states have proposed bills that would sharply restrict voter registration drives by adding several layers of bureaucratic regulation to voter registration groups. So far the bills have been signed into law in Texas and Florida, and the impact has been felt immediately: Shortly after the Florida bill’s enactment, the all-volunteer Florida League of Women Voters shut down its operations in the state, declaring that the new law “imposes an undue burden on groups such as ours that work to register voters.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau data from the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, African-American and Hispanic citizens are more than twice as likely to register to vote through the type of voter registration drives that the Florida and Texas laws target. The new flurry of bills detailed in the report, which also include restrictions on early voting and crackdowns on the ability to sign up to vote on election day, are why former President Bill Clinton told the Brennan Center that Republicans “are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like that 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate.”
And it’s proof that elections have consequences. The United States has been steadily tearing down barriers to voting over the past few decades, but much of that progress has been undone in the brief time since the 2010 elections. It surely cannot be a coincidence that about a quarter of the bills have been introduced by newly elected Republicans. If newly elected legislators cannot find solutions to their constituents economic problems, they can always do the next best thing: making it harder for their constituents to vote them out of office.