The Dangerous Assault on Voting Rights

Paul Butler

Writing Intern

Across the nation, conservatives aren’t letting the fact that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent get in the way of using the issue as an excuse to engage in widespread voter suppression.  As Stephen Colbert has mockingly expressed with regard to voter fraud, “Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere.”  Conservatives point to imaginary votes from dead people, noncitizens, and children that have supposedly swung an untold number of elections, despite the complete lack of evidence for any of their claims.  In reality, the objective is not to crack down on voter fraud but rather to crack down on the act of voting itself for those deemed unworthy of our most basic of constitutional rights.


The resulting voter ID laws in many states, largely passed by right-wing legislatures, represent a serious threat to voting rights for millions of Americans.  Several organizations, including the ACLU and NAACP, have exposed the malicious intent of the photo identification requirement and have launched court cases to stop its enforcement, with varied levels of success.


Pennsylvania’s ID legislation is one of the country’s most egregious examples of  voter suppression.  TRCF writing intern Stephanie Brown wrote an excellent blog post last summer on the true potential of the law to disenfranchise up to 9% of Pennsylvania’s eligible voters.   Conservatives didn’t take long to admit that eliminating fraud was never the real goal, with Speaker of the PA House Mike Turzai bragging that his legislation would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Unbelievably, attorneys representing the state and Governor Corbett conceded in a stipulation submitted to the Commonwealth Court that “there have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.”   Judge Robert Simpson ultimately postponed implementation of the law until after the 2012 election, noting that the state had done far less than promised to distribute IDs to prospective voters.


This July the case returned to the Commonwealth Court, and regardless of the outcome, it will almost certainly be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  The prosecution summoned a variety of experts to reveal the full extent of the voter suppression, including statistician Bernard Siskin, who argued that over 500,000 voters could be disenfranchised by the legislation.   In response, the Corbett administration has agreed to not enforce the law in the November 5th election but is asking the court to uphold the ID requirement for the future.  Attorneys for the state and prosecution finished their closing arguments in the landmark trial on August 1st, leaving both sides to wait for the verdict from Judge Bernard McGinley.


What remains abundantly clear is that the nationwide assault against voting rights will not be going away anytime soon.  In Shelby County v. Holder, five justices on the Supreme Court dismissed the idea that our country’s ugly racial history is still relevant today.  The Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key provision that contains the coverage formula to decide which jurisdictions are subjected to federal preclearance of election law changes.   Of course, Congress is explicitly empowered by the Fifteenth Amendment to protect voting rights from racial discrimination, but Justice Roberts based his ruling on the premise that the covered jurisdictions had outstripped their troubled roots and no longer deserved to be singled out for federal scrutiny.  Essentially, in the majority’s view, the sheer effectiveness of the preclearance requirement warranted its demise.  Justice Ginsburg lambasted the decision in a blistering dissent, comparing the logic of dismantling preclearance to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”


In reaction the verdict, many of the same individuals who regularly bash “judicial activism” celebrated the Supreme Court’s rejection of the overwhelming will of Congress to protect the right to vote. Texas attorney general Greg Abbott announced — on the day of the ruling, no less — that state voter ID and redistricting laws that had been previously blocked in federal court as discriminatory would immediately be implemented.   Mississippi and Alabama eagerly followed suit, beginning enforcement of ID laws without federal approval.    Meanwhile, just yesterday, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed H.B. 589, compelling voters to present certain types of government-issued IDs, among which college identification is not valid, while decreasing early voting and eliminating same day registration.


Clearly, our Supreme Court and state governments are failing in their Constitutional duty to protect the right to vote.  Pennsylvania is merely one of the numerous states whose voting systems are under assault, but the fight here is no less important.  Perhaps the best way to respond is to do precisely what ID-loving legislators fear the most: vote.