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Restrictive voting laws on rise across country

In 2011, legislators in seven states — Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — rewrote voting laws to require voters to present state-issued photo identification, while a voter-ID ballot question passed in Mississippi on Nov. 8. 

Florida and Ohio cut nearly in half the number of days for early voting and eliminated Sunday voting. Florida also will impose penalties for minor infractions on third-party voter-registration drives, prompting the nonpartisan League of Women Voters to cease voter registration in the state. 

The Maine Legislature eliminated same-day voter registration — until voters overwhelmingly rejected the law in a referendum on Nov. 8.

In all, Republican lawmakers in 23 states have passed, tried to pass or are attempting to pass laws toughening voter registration and voting requirements [see map, below] in what critics call the most concerted effort to roll back voting rights in decades. Critics from the NAACP to the AFT call it voter suppression: a blatant effort by states run by Republicans to tamp down on voting by low-income and minority voters in next year’s presidential election.

Restrictive voting laws on rise across country - 1American Civil Liberties Union

“States where restrictive laws have already passed represent 63 percent of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency,” says the Advancement Project, which tracks election laws.

The right-wing billionaire Koch brothers are big proponents of these new laws. The American Legislative Exchange Council, funded heavily by them, prepares model voter-suppression legislation. 

Critics call the new laws a modern-day version of the Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests — which are no longer limited to the South or African Americans.

“There is once again a quiet but systematic movement that would deny many African Americans and other American citizens the ability to vote with 21st century versions of old exclusionary practices,” said Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, in an article in the Huffington Post.

“The generations ahead of us had to face Jim Crow,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton at the Nov. 8 press conference to launch the “Stand for Freedom” campaign. “We face his son, James Crow Jr., Esq.”

The Republican supporters of these laws say they prevent widespread voter fraud. 

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, however, found incidents of individuals falsely claiming to be voters accounted for less than one-thousandth of 1 percent of all votes cast. Adds the American  Civil Liberties Union: “Multiple studies have found that almost all cases of in-person voter ‘fraud’ are the result of a voter making an honest mistake.” 

Studies show that laws requiring voters to present official photo IDs, such as a driver’s license or a passport, have a disproportionate impact on poor, minority and young voters. The Brennan Center found that 11 percent of citizens, or 21 million people, don’t have a current photo ID — including 15 percent of low-income eligible voters, 18 percent of young eligible voters and 25 percent of black eligible voters. 

Critics say the restrictions on Sunday voting target African Americans who vote after church. In the 2008 presidential election, a majority of those who cast early votes did so for President Barack Obama.

Election law changes in states with a history of discriminatory voting practices must get approval from the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure they do not violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The new voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina are being reviewed by the Justice Department. Mississippi will have to submit its plan for review as well.

The stakes in this battle are high. As he signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the company of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights leaders, President Lyndon Johnson said, “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless.”

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