On March 7, 1963, civil rights activists were brutally beaten by police in Selma, Alabama, during the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march, for advocating for the right to vote. This week, forty-seven years later, today’s civil rights leaders retraced the march from Selma to Montgomery, protesting what NAACP President Ben Jealous calls “the greatest attack on voting rights since segregation.” Since the 2010 election, Republicans have waged an unprecedented war on voting, with the unspoken but unmistakable goal of preventing millions of mostly Democratic voters, including students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly, from casting ballots in 2012. More than a dozen states, from Texas to Wisconsin and Florida, have passed laws designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process, whether by requiring birth certificates to register to vote, restricting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, requiring government-issued IDs to cast a ballot, or disenfranchising ex-felons.
Within days, the crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia will become the latest GOP states to pass legislation erecting new barriers to voting. If, as expected, the new laws lead to fewer Democrats casting ballots in November, both states could favor Republicans, possibly shifting the balance of power in Congress and denying Barack Obama a second term.
Pennsylvania will be the ninth GOP state since 2010 to require a photo ID in order to vote; the state’s law mandates a government-issued ID or one from a college or nursing home. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, 11 percent of U.S. citizens lack a government-issued ID, but the numbers are significantly higher among young voters (18 percent), voters 65 or older (18 percent) and African-Americans (25 percent). Based on these figures, as many as 700,000 Pennsylvanians may not be able to vote in the next election. (Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele claims 99 percent of Pennsylvanians possess the proper ID, which seems unlikely given the state’s large student, elderly and African-American population).
The Pennsylvania measures are strikingly similar to model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative advocacy group funded in part by the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers. In Pennsylvania, as in other states pushing voting restrictions, Republicans have hyped the bogeyman of “voter fraud” to promote the ID laws, even though, as the Associated Press noted, they were able to cite “no instances of voter fraud that the bill would somehow address.” The law, the very type of big-government expansion that Republicans so often decry, will cost the state anywhere from $4.3 million to $11 million to implement.
The law is an unnecessary expenditure by the state and an unreasonable burden on voters. In order to obtain a free ID card to vote, voters must first obtain a Social Security card, birth certificate or certificate of residency, along with two proofs of residency, which costs money and amounts to a poll tax by another name. A voter who shows up to the polls without a valid ID can cast a provisional ballot, but that ballot will count only if the voter provides the requisite ID to the county board of elections within six days. “This is de facto disenfranchisement,” says Andy Hoover, legislative director of the Pennsylvania ACLU. “The poll workers can avoid the discomfort of turning away a voter, but ultimately the chances that the vote will count are slim.”