The 2012 elections are still more than a year off, and that means if you're a member of the Republican Party fearing electoral backlash from anti-immigrant, anti-worker, anti-women policy, now's the time to start passing laws to disenfranchise all the people who might be angry enough to vote against you.
Thus Wisconsin, where Republicans are not content with leading the nation on ending collective bargaining for public employees. The state's GOP also hopes to blaze the 2012 trail on voter ID laws, which have long been criticized as deterring youth, immigrants and low-income people from voting. Wisconsin's bill, SB 6, has temporarily stalled in the Senate but is expected to pass in April once the Democratic senators return.
SB 6 is set to become the most restrictive voter ID bill in the country for its special crackdowns on students. Under the bill, in 2012 voters will need to produce a drivers license, a state ID, a passport or naturalization papers, a military ID or Native American tribal ID in order to vote. A student ID would not be an acceptable form of identification. This week, Milwaukee County Board passed a resolution promising to oppose the bill should SB 6 pass, because it will make it difficult for out-of-state students to vote on their college campuses, where they live nine months out of the year.
But Wisconsin is not alone. There's a long lineup of other states that are moving voter ID bills through their legislatures. On Thursday, Kansas' Senate Ethics and Elections Committee passed a weakened version of Attorney General Kris Kobach's SB 2067, Kansas' voter ID bill. The committee postponed implementation of the law for a year, and stripped language that would have allowed Kobach, a noted anti-immigrant legislator, to criminally prosecute those accused of voter fraud. That bill is headed to the Judiciary committee now.
On Wednesday, North Carolina lawmakers convened a hearing to consider voter fraud and a voter ID bill that might address it. The Missouri Senate approved a bill that would update the state constitution to require photo ID at the polls. Last week a Texas House committee approved a voter ID bill that's expected to pass easily. (In a telling twist, people over 70 and anyone who who can show a concealed handgun license would be allowed to vote without showing photo ID.)
A new report from ThinkProgress found that 22 states in total are considering bills to restrict people's voting rights. All of these bills would have a disproportionate impact on poor people, the elderly, the young, and people of color. A Brennan Center report found that a quarter of black voters and 16 percent of low-income voters don't have photo ID.
Not only are poor people and people of color less likely to have the forms of government ID required to vote, but they're also more likely to be harassed for identification at the polls. The felicitous coincidence, for Republicans at least, is that many of these groups of people are also the ones more likely to vote Democratic.
The justification Republicans give for all of this goes a little something like this: Unauthorized voters are storming the polls and stealing elections. Where they're coming from and how they're doing it is not quite clear, but it's happening. Voter fraud is responsible for any election that ends with a Democratic victory. That's how media personality Michelle Malkin explained tea party-backed Sharron Angle's loss to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid back in November, for instance. Political analysts largely credit the Latino voter turnout for pushing Reid over the top.
The lead sponsor of Wisconsin's voter ID law, Republican state Sen. Joe Leibham said that requiring voter ID at the polls was necessary to restore public confidence in the integrity of American elections, the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune reported.
Though some, like New Hampshire Republican House Speaker Bill O'Brien, are a little more direct. He's the guy who famously said that voter ID bills were important to restrict the voting rights of young people who "don't have life experience" and "just vote their feelings." O'Brien's bill would have forbid students to vote unless they or their parents had established permanent residency in their college towns. Last week New Hampshire students responded by organizing to make sure that O'Brien's bill failed when the House Elections Committee took it up.
With all the hurried legislative action, one would be forgiven for thinking that voter fraud were a great scourge infecting the nation. But it's not. The idea of widespread voter fraud is a myth that's been debunked over and over again. It turns out that actual voter fraud is quite rare.
Republican assertions of voter fraud have been around for decades, but they have existed with particular intensity since John Ashcroft's 2000 loss of the Missouri Senate race to a dead man, former Gov. Mel Carnahan, due to a surge in black turnout in St. Louis. Ashcroft went on to become George W. Bush's attorney general, where he oversaw a Justice Department that transformed its Voting Section into one dedicated to voter fraud. More than half of the section's career lawyers quit or were reassigned following the 2004 elections. Yet, after more than a decade of obsession with voter fraud, Republicans and the right-wing think tanks who have pushed it have produced no real examples of its existence.
They have, however, generated a long list of laws and regulations to counter voter fraud that have been proven to surpress legal voting. Among other things in the run up to the 2006 and 2008 elections, the Bush administration harassed states to conduct voter roll purges that summarily removed thousands from states' lists. The administration's high-profile firings of states attorneys, which drew so much controversy during the Bush years, grew out of those officials' refusal to go along with the harassment. Voter ID bills are shaping up to be the 2012 weapon of choice.