States Heighten Obstacles to Voting

Last week, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) signed into law a measure requiring voters to show photo identification before voting. The move was part of a growing trend; lawmakers have introduced such legislation in 25 states, with the legislatures of Indiana and Wisconsin passing similar bills this spring.

20 states now require some form of identification, but Georgia and South Carolina will be the most restrictive, forcing voters to fill out a provisional ballot if they have no picture ID -- a form of voting more easily challenged and disqualified. Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and South Dakota also require photo ID, but allow voters to sign an affidavit verifying their voter information as an alternative.

Civil rights groups warn that the new measures create more obstacles to voting, a move that will disproportionately affect low-income, minority and elderly voters:

"For disenfranchised populations, particularly minority populations, who have experienced problems in the past, this is another obstacle," said Charlie Mitchell, a [GA] state legislative counsel for the ACLU. "It may not keep a lot of people from the polls. But that's not the point. Even if it keeps some people from the polls, there must be a compelling state interest to restrict anyone's right to vote, and there is no example of this."

"I have been registering voters for over 30 years," said [Warren] Butler [of the GA NAACP], who has driven church members from his parish to the polls. "And when you put something extra out there to cause a person to go another step in order to register or vote, it impedes them and cuts down on the number of people that do vote."

These measures do have a history. As the Institute revealed in an investigation last fall (pdf), the Voting Rights Section at the Department of Justice is now led by conservative ideologues of the "voting integrity" movement, which raises the specter of voter fraud to push for limits on voter participation. This was the impetus behind the DOJ's intervention last November in Ohio and other states to restrict the use of provisional ballots, as well as oppose other reforms that expand the franchise.

The irony is that the right-wing "voting integrity" cause is gaining steam precisely at the time that states are making big advances in technology to maintain and verify voter rolls, which enables election officials to protect against double-voting and other supposed scourges of the democratic process.

These moves to restrict the vote are also happening as the Voting Rights Act comes up for renewal in 2007, a point noted by Jesse Jackson in his call for a voting rights march in Atlanta this coming August.