US elections: Republican laws block black voters

African Americans line up to vote in the 2008 ­presidential election in Birmingham, ­Alabama. (AFP)

African Americans line up to vote in the 2008 ­presidential election in Birmingham, ­Alabama. (AFP)

In an astonishing return to the notorious "Jim Crow" segregation era, Republican officials in 38 states have, in the past two years, passed laws demanding the types of voter identification documents that many black and Hispanic voters are unlikely to possess.

Meanwhile, one lawyer challenging one of the 180 new laws, Jennifer Clarke, told the Mail & Guardian the campaign was "the most widespread assault on voting rights since before 1964" – and compared the demand for black Americans to get suburban-style IDs with "the pass books of black South Africans under apartheid".

Last week, a court ruling in Pennsylvania in effect disqualified 750 000 voters at the stroke of a pen, the bulk of them elderly people or from minority groups.

According to the leading non-partisan authority on the issue, the Brennan Centre for Justice, 1.2-million black Americans in 10 states with the strictest new laws have not only lost their ability to vote this year, but were unlikely to get the new IDs in the just more than 10 weeks remaining to election day. A similar number are at risk in 24 other states, along with Hispanics and poor voters older than 65 – all of whom are much less likely to have valid driver's licence IDs than white voters.

Nationally, the centre found new voter ID laws from last year alone meant five million eligible voters would find it "significantly harder" to get back their ability to vote.

For Gloria Cuttino (61) there is no hope at all of recovering her constitutional right this year. Like tens of thousands of other African Americans delivered by midwives in home births, Cuttino – a Philadelphia grandmother – has no birth certificate and no means of complying with the new law.

Poll taxes
Cuttino remembers a time when many black Americans were subject to literacy tests and poll taxes for the right to vote.

She said: "It's important to vote – I want to cast my opinion, to get some change that will work for all of us. Now I find I can't vote anymore because I don't have a voter ID, which I can't get because I don't have a birth certificate, which wasn't issued to me when I was born. I think it's crap. I do my part, I volunteer to do whatever I can to help. I want this law to stop. It's never been a problem before for me to vote – why now?"

Minorities are expected to vote overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates. Voting rights advocates say Republican governors and state legislators have risked charges of racism and bullying in the belief that only a low turnout among minorities can give the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, a chance at the White House and Republican lawmakers a chance of controlling both houses of Congress.

Jotaka Eaddy, voting rights director for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which represents African Americans, said: "This is clearly an outrageous and concerted effort to disenfranchise groups which tend to vote for one particular party. It's the most aggressive attack on ­voting rights for over a century and it's fundamentally an attack on our democracy."

According to Republican spokespersons, these new restrictions on millions of voters have been imposed in more than two-thirds of the country's states – and at vast expense – to ­"combat voter fraud".

Yet only a total of 10 people – that is 10, not a misprint – have committed ­in-person voter fraud in any election in the US in the past 12 years.

Problems
Meanwhile, in a separate report, the Brennan Centre found "hundreds of thousands" of votes go astray each election year because of faulty voting machines, incorrect instructions from election station officials and deliberately misleading voter education leaflets by rival campaign volunteers, yet little action has been taken to stop these problems.

Instead, the head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, Mike Turzai, let slip a public comment last month that most neutral experts say reflects the true motive: "Voter ID – which is going to allow Gov[ernor] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania – done!"

The Republican blitz on minority voting rights has been so ­widespread and featured such a diversity of "­cynical tactics" that ­advocacy groups say both they and the department of justice have been caught out.

Bernard Whitman, a leading Democrat pollster, said the campaign had placed both Obama's ­re-election and US democracy itself at ­"serious risk".

The Brennan Centre admitted: "States have changed their laws so rapidly that no single analysis has assessed the overall impact of such moves."

Even as federal lawyers have succeeded in blocking one move to stop early voting in Florida and another to restrict registration in South Carolina, Brennan researchers recorded 27 brand-new Bills aimed at further restrictions and numerous local schemes with the same intent.

Disqualified
Photo IDs, which black Americans are more likely to possess – including student IDs and veterans' benefit cards – have been specifically disqualified in most of the states involved and rules have been contrived to exclude IDs without expiry dates or signatures.

New studies show black Americans are also least likely to be able to get the new photo IDs in the next two months. In one breathtaking move, Republican officials in Texas, Ohio and some other states have cut the opening hours for traffic departments in black neighbourhoods, where the best form of ID can be sourced. In Sauk City, Wisconsin, the "DMV" document office is now open only on the fifth Wednesday of the month, according to Brennan. Only four months of this year have five Wednesdays.

Other laws have crippled traditional African American voter turnout strategies: limiting registration drives, imposing time limits and fines for voter registration cards and, in Florida, banning early voting on the one day when African American churches traditionally mobilise their congregants to vote ("souls to the polls") – on the Sunday before the primary voting day on November 6.

Florida's governor has also recently issued an executive order permanently reversing the law that had allowed 500000 ex-prisoners to apply to vote. Some 200000 of these happen to be African Americans. The state of Iowa has also stripped ­former felons of their rights.

Whitman said: "I'm willing to accept that this reprehensible strategy to suppress the vote is not driven by racism but by a cynical political ploy." But he said – away from the cameras – even Republican activists did not seriously claim the effort was about voter fraud.

The real question is how the American public has allowed this reversal of voting rights to happen – and why a majority of them actually support voter ID laws.

Misunderstandings
As New York Times editorial board super­visor Andrew Rosenthal recently noted, the laws have been passed partly as a result of one of the greatest public misunderstandings in US history.

Polls show that 81% of Americans believe voter fraud is either a major or at least a worrisome problem.

However, in the most comprehensive study of its kind, a major new report by a team of 24 researchers at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism confirmed the existing estimates: "Since 2000, a time when 146-million Americans were registered to vote, [we] found 10 cases of in-person voter fraud, which only photo ID laws would prevent. That would be about one case for every 15-million eligible voters."

There is, in other words, slightly less than one case a year of a person impersonating someone else at a ­voting booth in the US – a country of 320-million citizens. Or less frequent, as Whitman noted, than deaths by lightning strikes in the US.

Whitman said a key reason for the public support for the laws was that "most Americans do have valid photo ID, often without difficulty, and naturally don't think anything of the challenges which, say, a person who has always used public transport might have in suddenly having to get a driver's licence ID".

Counter-argument
A more ominous reason for the suppression effort exploding out of the shadows this year is that Republican activists believe they have found an effective counter-argument to the obvious challenge of racism: that it is, in fact, racist to object to their voter-restriction requirements.

In the most extreme example of how racial language has re-entered US politics through this issue, conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager recently told his audience: "Imagine if some Democratic politician had announced that demanding a photo ID at the voting booth was an attempt to keep Jewish Americans from voting. Jews vote almost as lopsidedly Democrat as do blacks.

"So why weren't Jews included in liberal objections to voter ID laws? We all know the answer. Jews are generally considered intelligent and therefore no one would assume that obtaining a photo ID was demanding too much of even poor Jews – yes, there are poor Jews. The message [for blacks] is as clear as day: We expect less of you. Why? Because we think less of you."

Republican pollsters point out that a large chunk of the millions of minority Americans "affected" would probably not have voted in this election anyway, and experts agree.

Richard Hansen, a professor of law at the University of California, says Democrats have also been guilty of irresponsibility on election rules, opposing valid efforts to prevent noncitizens from voting.

But – staged in one of the world's most diverse and unequal societies – election 2012 is now undeniably geared for car drivers and passport holders: in other words, white, Republican-leaning suburbanites.

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