This week brought another major report on all the efforts in state capitals, almost all Republican-led, to restrict voting rights via new limits on voter registration, early voting, proof of residency and voter identification, all in the name of countering the phantom menace of voter fraud. In a conference call to announce the report, which was produced by the Center for American Progress, Rep. James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat, noted that the new rules had led several groups to stop registering voters in that most crucial of swing states, Florida, for fear of running afoul of the law: “To see the League of Women Voters walking away from voter registration activities in the state of Florida because to do so makes it almost inevitable that they will be brought before a court of law and charged with crimes — that is not the America so many of us started, back in our pre-teenaged years, working to make possible.” This prompted me to wonder again, as I did when I first heard about the decision by the registration groups to abandon Florida, why there hasn’t been more visible pushback against the new restrictions. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, after all, people risked imprisonment and worse to protest on behalf of voting rights and civil rights. Why is the threat of penalties under an obviously unjust law now enough to discourage groups from challenging them outright?
In Florida, for instance, the many new restrictions on registering voters include the requirement that any volunteers registering voters get all registration forms to the proper authorities within two days of the voters having been signed up. That’s down from an already strict 10-day window, and it’s a rule that’s awfully easy to break if you lack a car or if the good ole USPS doesn’t get your envelope to the right place in time. Why not just keep registering voters, doing one’s best to comply with the rules but daring the Florida authorities to haul you before the judge if you happen to fall outside the absurdly narrow lines?
Well, it turns out that a lot of thought went into this question. And several of the big voter registration groups decided that, for now, it was better to challenge the new rules in court rather than in the street, as it were. The thinking was that proceeding under the new rules was a lose-lose proposition. If one was able to proceed without getting accused of violating the rules, it might buttress the argument that the new rules were workable — even if the rules resulted in far lower registration totals in the past, as presumably would be the case. Meanwhile, if one did get accused of breaking the rules, the penalty might not be enough to provoke media attention and general outrage; but the resulting large fine or blot on one’s record might still be enough to cause real hardship for the volunteer in question.