Twenty-one-year old Gillian Demers says she was “more than a little afraid” when she received a letter from the state warning she may be breaking the law—by registering to vote. Last September, the University of Maine senior received a letter from Maine’s secretary of state, Republican Charles Summers, questioning her right to vote in her newly adopted state. Two hundred and five other students received the same letter, sent after the state’s GOP chairman, Charlie Webster, asked his GOP colleague to investigate if the students had the right to vote in Maine. Unless she met certain bureaucratic regulations like registering for a Maine driver’s license, Summers’s letter said, Demers would have to revoke her residency or be in violation of a law that could mean up to six months in jail. The letter is just one example of new laws and regulations rolled out largely by Republican-controlled statehouses over the last two years. Purportedly aimed at preventing voter fraud, the laws suppress the votes of students and minorities and, according to court records and interviews with political insiders from both parties, at least some GOP officials know it.
Since Republicans took control of 10 new governorships and 11 state legislatures in 2010, 19 states have passed bills changing their voting laws—changes that could disenfranchise as many as 5 million voters in this year’s presidential election, according to a report from New York University’s left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. That’s more than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections. In 2008, 66 percent of all voters under 30 and 96 percent of all black voters backed Barack Obama, according to exit polls.
In Florida, a swing state known for its election troubles, internal emails show that senior Republican officials molded a controversial elections law to improve the party’s chances of winning the crucial state. Although these party leaders—and the GOP legislators who passed the law—claim that the legislation was designed to fight voter fraud, the memos show that the Republicans know little voter fraud exists. Indeed, voter fraud is an invented enemy, said one Republican former state senator, employed to pass politically advantageous laws in anticipation of the presidential election.