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NEWS

Suppressing the vote

Restrictive new voting laws expected to diminish turnout nationwide for 2012 elections

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Voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in America, but this imaginary crime still serves to justify a wave of onerous new voter registration laws – often requiring a state-issued photo ID – that Republican legislators have rapidly spread across the nation. The implications for the 2012 elections are huge.

“The overall idea is pretty obvious,” says Frances Fox Piven, author of three books outlining America’s unusually harsh and restrictive voting laws. “Both parties expect close elections in 2012, and if you peel off just a couple percentage points, you can determine the outcome.”

Piven points to Wisconsin, where protests over a law passed earlier this year rendering public-employee unions toothless were followed by the imposition of a restrictive voter ID law by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican majorities in the state Legislature. “We saw labor protests of unprecedented size and intensity over limiting their voice as workers,” Piven says. “And then [protesters] were greeted with a law to limit their power electorally, too.”

With the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council promoting voter identification, eight other states also passed restrictive new laws this year, including Florida, bringing the total number of states with such laws to 30. Another 16 states have seen similar ID laws introduced in 2011. Only a veto in June by New Hampshire’s Gov. John Lynch (D) prevented the passage of a law using residency requirements to diminish the voting of, as the state’s House Speaker William O’Brien (R) described them, “liberal” students.

On its website, ALEC – whose funders include billionaires David and Charles Koch (Gov. Walker’s second-largest source of direct contributions) – describes how a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision makes it easy to impose new restrictions on voting rights: There “was no requirement that Indiana show prior evidence of impersonation fraud in Indiana to justify a voter ID law.”

Indeed, such evidence is nonexistent. Federal records “show that only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005,” according to “The Politics of Fraud,” a Project Vote report written by political scientist Lorraine Minnite. Similarly, the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy and law institute at New York University, concluded, “It’s more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

But Republicans have dismissed the absence of evidence and instead are striking with lightning-like speed to ram through stringent new requirements for voting. The Wisconsin law, which requires state-issued voter IDs, voter signatures, longer residency requirements and other procedural barriers to voting, was described by Jay Heck, state director of the nonprofit citizen’s lobby Common Cause, as “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation.” The new law will make it much harder for those who lack driver’s licenses, which includes 23 percent of elderly Wisconsinites, 59 percent of Latina women and 78 percent of African-American men ages 18 to 24. These people will need to acquire state-issued photo identification to vote. Existing photo IDs for students fail to meet the new standard.

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