Richard Reeves

The Quiet Campaign: Voter Suppression

LOS ANGELES -- The 2012 presidential election is not only about who votes for Barack Obama and who votes for Mitt Romney. It is also about who votes.

In a national campaign that does not get much national publicity, at least 41 states have passed laws or are considering new laws making it more difficult to vote in November, or legislation designed to discourage people from even trying to cast ballots, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The center reports on a quiet wave of new state legislation sweeping the country that focuses on voting eligibility and estimates that these laws could reduce presidential voting by as many as 5 million votes. To put that number in perspective, in 2008, Obama won the presidency by 9 million votes.

The report, issued two weeks ago, lists five types of laws:

-- Photo identification cards. At least 34 states have passed or are considering laws requiring voters to show photo IDs to get to a ballot box or machine. The bills have become law just this past year in Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Mississippi. It seems amazing, but 21 million Americans apparently do not have government-issued identification, including even driver's licenses.

-- Proof-of-citizenship laws. At least 15 states have passed or are considering laws requiring voters to show birth certificates or passports to vote.

-- Making voter registration more difficult. At least 16 states have passed or are considering legislation that would end same-day registration. Three of those states, Florida, Illinois and Texas, have also passed laws restricting voter registration drives.

-- At least nine states have passed laws or are considering legislation to end early voting days, and four are trying to restrict absentee voting.

-- Making it harder to restore voting rights. Two states, Florida and Iowa, have reversed executive action that permitted restoration of voting rights for ex-felons after a given period of time.

I would add at least one more factor in holding down voter turnout: negative advertising. There is some evidence that voters can get so disgusted with massive negative commercials, posters, mail, etc. that they decide not to vote. That could have been a factor in the lower-than-usual turnout in Republican primaries this year. There is no doubt that negative advertising works with many voters, but it may also be creating ex-voters.

Voter suppression is as old as the Republic. After all, only white males who owned property were allowed to vote in a couple of states in our first elections. And the franchise was notoriously denied African-Americans and women for decade after decade.

At the moment, much of the vote suppression is in Republican-controlled legislations. The phrase "voter fraud" is thrown around, but there is no doubt the idea now is designed to discourage poor people, who are usually both less-informed about the law and more likely to vote for Democrats.

There are and have been many tricks of this old trade. Men in police uniforms, some real, some not, have stood near voting stations, intimidating possible voters who may have had trouble with the law or are just afraid of cops. Men in suits with clipboards asking questions also have an effect on some possible voters. In fact, that was the way William Rehnquist in Arizona began the political activity that eventually made him chief justice of the United States.

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