Signs of Life :: Voting

Activists Defend Voter Rights

Voting rights advocates have been working to overturn laws across the country that could disenfranchise voters and lead to unfair results in 2008 elections. Relying on technicalities and cumbersome administrative processes to verify voters, the disputed laws have the potential to deny the vote to hundreds of thousands of Americans.

As a key swing state, Florida has been one of the main battlegrounds. On December 18, voter advocates won a federal court decision blocking a Florida “no-match, no-vote” law. The decision added 16,000 qualified voters to the voting rolls, including thousands of minorities.

The law would have required voters to be verified against driver’s license registration lists or social security records, relying on an error-fraught administrative process. Under the law, voters could be struck from the rolls because of name changes, such as from a “maiden” to married name; name misspellings; or even the inclusion of a middle initial.

Republicans allege such laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, but research shows that voters are highly unlikely to cast fraudulent ballots. “The Bush Justice Department initiated a special ballot integrity initiative to try to find out whether people were committing voter fraud, pretending to be someone else when they voted, voting when they were ineligible,” says former Justice Department official Dave Becker. “And over the course of about four years, they discovered only two dozen instances.”

More often, partisan officials have used voter verification laws to discourage voters, often minorities, from casting ballots for the opposing party. A 2004 study by two Rice University social scientists demonstrates that, since the 1960s, the Republican Party, in particular, has strategically discouraged voting in minority precincts that tend to favor Democrats.

Over the past two years, Project Vote and the Advancement Project have led successful legal campaigns to stop other laws in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland that discouraged voting and voter registration.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers has introduced a bill in the House to prevent “voter caging,” the purging of voters from the rolls based on faulty mailing addresses. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate in November.

The Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to an Indiana law that requires citizens to present picture IDs when voting. The law disproportionately strikes from the voting rolls low-income, senior, and minority voters who may be unable to afford fees for IDs or access state ID registration offices.

—Edward Hailes is a senior attorney with the Advancement Project.

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