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Voting rights and the games states play

19th November 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Marjorie R. Esman
Contributing Columnist

The nation has just completed its 57th Presidential election. There are approximately 169 million registered voters in the United States and 73 million others who are eligible to vote but not registered. In a nation where voting is the cornerstone of government, every eligible voter should be registered so the electorate truly reflects our nation’s population. While the eligibility for voting is set out in the U.S. Constitution, voting is regulated at the state level and states can impose their own requirements and regulations that can lead to the disenfranchisement of otherwise eligible voters.

The effort to suppress votes features a two-pronged attack that starts with voter registration. With the exception of North Dakota, every state requires voters to register. But there is a concerted effort in some states to suppress voter registration, including new laws that place unreasonable restrictions on civic groups engaged in voter registration drives. In Florida, a district judge recently blocked parts of a state law that put “harsh and impractical” restrictions on civic groups that helped register new voters for the upcoming election season. The Florida law’s heavy fines had forced registration groups like Rock the Vote and The League of Women Voters to shut down operations in that state. It’s true that a voter registration organization once sent a registration application to a dog among five million other pieces of mail. While this is often cited as an illustration of “voter fraud,” the dog never voted or tried to vote, so there was no real crisis. Yet incidents like this are often used to justify restricting the voter registration process.

Once a voter is registered, further obstacles can inhibit the exercise of the right to vote. The validity of registration can come into question at the polls. Some states engage in random poll purges, or enact proof of citizenship requirements and photo identification laws that mask as progressive legislation created out of false concern for the sanctity of the electoral process. What they really are is a well-designed network of roadblocks that disproportionately affect certain groups. – notably the elderly, the poor, the young, the disabled, and married women. In Wisconsin, 84-year-old Ruthelle Frank is a registered voter and has voted in every election since 1948. She has held public office in her community. But she lacks the photo ID required by a new Wisconsin law, and because she was born at home she doesn’t have the birth certificate needed to obtain the required ID. The state Register of Deeds has a record of her birth and can produce a certified copy, but at a cost. Even if she pays for it, because her name is misspelled the document is unacceptable. To correct the error is costly and presents an unnecessary obstacle to her right to vote. The ACLU has sued on her behalf, to protect her right to vote and that of other people who simply lack the documentation that this new law requires.

The Brennan Center for Justice released a study in October 2012 reporting that 13 states have recently passed legislation that disproportionately affects the turnout of younger voters, minorities and lower-income voters and women who have ever been married. Twenty one other states are considering similar legislation. Sixteen states have adopted or are pursuing voter purges that will impact 5.5 million registered Latino voters. Combined, these groups comprise more than 50 percent of the unregistered eligible voters. In a true democracy, we should be looking for ways to help them vote, not to make it more difficult.

Study after study suggests that voter fraud is negligible. And, in spite of insistence by some, these studies also indicate that the recent rash of voter purges have turned up little evidence of voter fraud. In fact, some say that these scare tactics hurt the electoral process by causing mistrust for the process among voters.

The ACLU is this country’s largest civil liberties organization. We have litigated voting rights cases in states across America because protecting the right to vote is essential to ensuring fairness in a true democracy. Across the country, the ACLU will continue to be diligent in our efforts to recognize and thwart attempts to inhibit the fundamental right of all Americans to vote.

Ms. Esman is the Executive Director of the Louisiana chapter of the ACLU.

This article originally published in the November 19, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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