Republicans are waging the most concerted campaign to prevent or discourage citizens from exercising their legitimate voting rights since the Jim Crow days of poll taxes and literacy tests. Four years ago, Democrats expanded American democracy by registering millions of new voters — mostly young people and minorities — and persuading them to show up at the polls. Apparently, the GOP is determined not to let any such thing happen again. According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which keeps track of changes in voting laws, 22 statutes and two executive actions aimed at restricting the franchise have been approved in 17 states since the beginning of 2011. By the center’s count, an additional 74 such bills are pending.
The most popular means of discouraging those young and minority voters — who, coincidentally, tend to vote for Democrats — is legislation requiring citizens to show government-issued photo identification before they are allowed to cast a ballot. Photo ID bills have been approved by Republican-controlled legislatures in Alabama, Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, and by referendum in Mississippi. Only one state with a Democratic-controlled legislature — Rhode Island — passed a law requiring voters to produce identification, and it does not mandate a government ID with a photo. In Virginia, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has not decided whether to sign a voter ID bill the legislature sent to his desk.
In theory, what could be wrong with demanding proof of identity? In the real world, plenty. As Republican strategists are fully aware, minorities are overrepresented among the estimated 11 percent of citizens who do not have a government-issued photo ID. They are also painfully aware that, in 2008, President Obama won 95 percent of the African American vote and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote. It doesn’t take a genius to do the math: If you can reduce the number of black and Latino voters, you improve the Republican candidate’s chances.