New laws in 19 states to restrict access to ballot and poor and black people are likely to be most affected. Voting rights groups are struggling to hold back a tide of new laws that are likely to make it harder for millions of Americans to vote in the presidential election in November and could distort the outcome of the race for the White House.
Since January 2011, 19 US states have passed a total of 24 laws that create hurdles between voters and the ballot box. Some states now require people to show government-issued photo cards. Others have whittled down early voting hours, imposed restrictions on the registration of new voters, banned people with criminal records or attempted to purge eligible voters from the electoral roll.
The assault on voter rights is particularly acute in key swing states. Five of the nine main battlegrounds identified by the Republican strategist Karl Rove have introduced laws that could suppress turnout: Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia. Between them, the states that have imposed restrictions account for the lion’s share of the 270 electoral college votes that Barack Obama or Mitt Romney must win. Sixteen of the states that have passed new voter restrictions between them hold 214 electoral votes.
“We are seeing a dramatic assault on voting rights, the most significant pushback on democratic participation that we’ve seen in decades,” said Wendy Weiser of the non-partisan think-tank the Brennan Center for Justice, and the co-author of the definitive study of US voter suppression in the 2012 election cycle. “These laws could make it harder for millions of eligible American citizens to participate, particularly in swing states.” The centre of the anti-democratic move sweeping across the US is Florida, which has a long history of voter suppression. With a famously evenly balanced population that in 2000 elected George Bush by an official majority of only 537 out of almost 6 million votes cast, even a relatively minor distortion of turnout could have huge implications, not just for Florida but, given the state’s prominent role in determining the outcome of recent presidential elections, the whole of the US, and, by extension, the world.
Florida Republicans have made several blatant attempts to suppress turnout during this election cycle. One of the first acts of governor Rick Scott when he took office in 2011 was to reimpose what is in effect a lifelong voting ban on anyone convicted of a felony, including 1.3 million Floridians who have fully completed their sentences.
“There are over a million people in Florida who no longer have the full rights of citizenship and right to vote,” said Baylor Johnson of Florida’s American Civil Liberties Union. “One million people - that’s the White House for a generation, which gives you an idea of why they are trying so hard to stop people voting.” The felony trap is just a small part of it. Over the past 18 months the Republican-controlled state government in Florida has introduced new restrictions. They include: a reduction in early voting hours that will hit black communities that made disproportionate use of the opportunity through their churches; changes that will make it harder for those who change address to vote and could catch hundreds of thousands of families who have lost their homes through foreclosure; and attempts to erase thousands of voters from the electoral roll through a “purge list” that was so flawed that the state’s electoral supervisors refused to touch it.
“Florida has proven to be a testing ground for voter suppression across the country. It’s ground zero of this stuff,” said Hilary Shelton, who heads the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Republican politicians in Florida and the other 18 states that have gone down the road of voter restrictions insist they are motivated by a concern to prevent fraud. When the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, introduced a voter ID law last year he did so using his emergency powers, saying the rule change would “appropriately help maintain the integrity and fairness of our electoral system”.
Yet studies into the extent of fraud at the polls have found cases few and far between. “You are more likely to find someone struck by lightning than someone who carries out impersonation fraud to cast an improper vote,” Weiser said.
Occasionally the veil has slipped, revealing what might be a deeper motivation for Republican politicians.
True to form, it was a Florida Republican, Mike Bennett, who put it most succinctly during a debate about the state’s voter clampdown.
“I don’t have a problem making [democratic participation] harder. I want people in Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who walks 200 miles across the desert. This should not be easy.” Not all the steps taken to turn the November presidential election into a walk across the Saharan desert are as comical as Georgia’s. As the Jackson Free Press discovered, under the state’s new rules voters would need to produce a certified birth certificate in order to get a photo ID, but would need to produce a photo ID in order to get a certified birth certificate.
Georgia’s catch-22 is on hold pending federal approval for its voter ID law. The US department of justice has been taking a robust stance this year, blocking attempts to suppress the turnout in Texas and South Carolina, while civil lawsuits are pending in Pennsylvania and several other states.
For observers of Florida’s long history of electoral discrimination, this all sounds familiar. Before the 1965 Voting Rights Act Florida, mirrored by others across the south, deployed a number of techniques to prevent black people voting.
There was: the poll tax that allowed everybody to vote, as long as they could afford the tax (many African Americans couldn’t); a literacy test that allowed whites to vote with a simple cross while blacks had to recite the preamble to the constitution word perfect; and “multiple annexations”, where voters had to travel to several offices over distances of 100 miles or more to ensure they could vote.
Such barriers are in the past, but the rash of new laws erecting hurdles has chilling echoes. “We are looking at a return of discriminatory policies at state level,” said the NAACP’s Shelton. “Jim Crow might be dead and buried, but James E Crow Esq is very much alive and kicking.”