Voting-reform legislation, which has been proposed in 34 states, brings me back to 2004, when John Kerry tried to unseat George W. Bush.
The purpose of this new legislation is to prevent voter fraud. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law — an academic think tank that took pains to represent both sides of this issue in a recent report — the way the new laws would help prevent voting fraud is, simply put, by making it harder for people to vote. Across the board, this legislation would place additional restrictions on what someone must do or produce at the polling place before pulling any levers, punching any cards, or pressing any touch-screens.
These restrictions, which invariably require photo identification, fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, according to the authors of the Brennan report, published this month. It notes that 11 percent of citizens, or some 21 million people, do not have photo IDs.
In 2004, I was among a throng of East End residents who traveled to Florida to try to get out the vote for Senator Kerry. A friend and I signed up with the Election Protection Project, which was supported by a coalition of organizations. We wound up in Fort Lauderdale, going door to door and trying to assist people headed to the polls. As volunteers, we worked under the auspices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In looking back, I think our participation was most effective as a means of educating us, the volunteers, about the crazy hoops many Americans, especially poor Americans, must jump through to exercise their most fundamental democratic right. We saw scores and scores of citizens — mainly black, mainly from working-class or poor neighborhoods — who stood patiently in ine by the hundreds, in the Florida heat, for five, seven, nine hours before they reached the voting booth.
We did our best to help anyone who appeared to be having difficulties (mainly with their registration or transportation), but, really, most of the people we spoke with were thoroughly familiar with the process — and, in most cases, had already put aside their lives and jobs to spend Election Day waiting in line. Some parents brought along small children for the duration, having nowhere else to park them.
In any case, although it was a wonderful experience, I don’t think our Election Protection efforts swayed the result in our district. Fort Lauderdale is in Broward County, which is heavily Democratic. President Bush won Florida by five points, 52.1 percent to 47.1, and Broward was the only county to go for Senator Kerry. There, he took 53.7 percent of the vote to President Bush’s 45.8.
Because my late parents lived in a retirement community not far from Fort Lauderdale in the 1980s, I was also struck on Election Day by the number of elderly voters being bused to the polls. Some needed help walking, while others needed Good Samaritans in the voting booth. It was gratifying to be there.
Meanwhile, we kept a wary eye on a different group of volunteers gathered near the entrance to our assigned polling place: a group of distinctly hefty, thuggish-looking men who kept watch on the lines while one of their number checked a mysterious clipboard and made phone calls. Honestly, they reminded us of well-dressed extras from a gangster movie, brought in to look menacing and scare off anyone who might make trouble. We never did figure out what they were doing.
We had been instructed to move along the lines of waiting voters, offering to try to answer any general questions about the process. We carried the phone number of the N.A.A.C.P. headquarters, where lawyers stood by in case advice or intervention was needed. I saw only one instance when a lawyer was called.
The Brennan Center’s report is nonpartisan and comprehensive. It describes what proponents of these laws as well as what the opponents have to say about them. It gives detailed information about why the laws impact disproportionately the elderly, minorities, students, those with low incomes, and even the disabled. It notes that although strict photo ID requirements for voting have been suggested for almost a decade, the push for them escalated after 2010, when Republicans took over many state legislatures.
In a state-by-state analysis, the Brennan Center report notes that Texas and Florida now even have laws on the books that target groups that undertake voter-registration drives.
The Florida law, which dates back to 2005 and has been subsequently rewritten, is under federal review to determine if it violates the Voting Rights Act. Nevertheless, the League of Women Voters has discontinued its registration drives in Florida, saying the law would “place thousands of volunteers at risk, subjecting them to a process . . . [that] could result in their facing financial and civil penalties.”
While many of us can personally remember the days, not so long ago, when millions of African-Americans were disenfranchised by intentionally draconian voting requirements and institutionalized intimidation, there has simply been no evidence in this country of widespread voter fraud, according to the Brennan Center. The report says our registration system already provides among the most significant barriers to voting, resulting in the disenfranchisement of millions of American during every federal election.
It is easy to find the report on the Web if you are interested. Draw your own conclusions.