Weekly Voting Rights News Update
By Erin Ferns
The debates surrounding the issue of expanding or restricting access to the right to vote are in high gear this legislative session at both state and Congressional levels. Bills filed range from proposals to lower the voting age to voter ID requirements. Project Vote's Election Legislation monitoring project has identified a surge of contentious election bills this year, but whether this is simply the result of the standard impact of a presidential election year or the byproduct of increasingly fractious partisan politics, the future of the foundational right of American democracy is being set right now.
This week Project Vote examines the progress of four hot-button voting rights issues through legislatures and the media. Youth voting in primary elections, voter identification (and its harbinger; accusations of voter fraud), felon disenfranchisement, and vote caging were all in play.
Advocates concerned with any of these issues as well as the entire spectrum of voting rights and election administration legislation can follow the progress of these types of bills through 21 state legislatures at Project Vote's ElectionLegislation.org tool (registration required).
Extending voting rights to 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election has been the subject of numerous election bills across the nation. On Tuesday, a New Hampshire bill that allows 17-year-olds to vote in state and federal primaries "ran into a flurry of questions about it's constitutionality," according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. The debate was heated enough to consider seeking an advisory opinion from the state Supreme Court before the going to the full House. Opponents of the bill argue that a primary is not an election under state law, but supporters say this is the perfect measure to "get voters involved when they are young."
Currently, 11 states allow citizens under 18 to vote, according to state Legislative Youth Advisory Council co-chair, Brendan Bertagnoll. Among these states, he said, voter participation by young voters ages 18-24 exceeds the national average. That argument failed to sway Wisconsin legislators who voted a similar bill down in the state Senate last week.
Also recently failing in the Wisconsin legislature were four bills relating to restrictive voter identification requirements at the polls. Even as the constitutionality of voter ID requirements is being examined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Crawford v. Marion County Elections Board, several states are pushing to pass such laws, which have a disenfranchising effect on low income, minority, elderly and young voters. Most observers expect the Supreme Court to uphold Crawford, so these types of bills will almost certainly pass constitutional muster, increasing the danger they pose to the ability of underrepresented groups to fully participate in America's electoral process.
After failing to pass any of the six voter ID bills introduced in the Legislature this year and weeks past the filing deadline for new bills, the Mississippi Senate has tried an extraordinary parliamentary tactic to win voter ID restrictions. It approved a resolution "that would allow a new bill to be filed for voter identification and other election issues," according to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. The resolution, SCR 624, must be approved by two-thirds of the House before the new voter ID bill can be filed. If the resolution passes, it will call for the requirement of voters to provide certain ID "before being allowed to vote." Only voters born on or before June 30, 1944, who do not have valid Miss. ID, are exempt from the requirement.
The resolution is a disenfranchising double whammy as it also proposes to expand the list of crimes that result in the loss of voting rights to those citizens convicted of "any felony," not just the crimes currently outlined in law.
The (non-existent) specter of felons, non-citizens, and voter impersonators illegally voting at the polls in droves has long been pushed by partisans seeking electoral advantage. This week, in a "hoisted by your own petard" story, AlterNet's Steven Rosenfeld (quoting Project Vote Deputy Director Michael Slater) reported on conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh's potential voter fraud scheme in Ohio and Texas. "For years, Republicans have literally made a federal case of voter fraud," he wrote. "The Bush Justice Department fired U.S. attorneys who would not prosecute cases of people who GOP politicos believed were impersonating voters to help Democratic candidates." Now, it appears, Rush, allegedly, may have been committing fraud himself.
Partisan politics and voter suppression are an undercurrent in large-scale challenges of voters, especially 'voter caging' - an issue U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) addresses in a new bill. "Caging is the term applied to wholesale voter challenge activity, directed at discrete populations of voters, usually consisting of the poor, the minority or students," election law expert, Bob Bauer recently wrote on his website, www.MoreSoftMoneyHardLaw, regarding a Politico piece on the subject. Whitehouse's bill regulates "caging" practices by requiring verifiable proof of a voter's ineligibility before "making a blanket claim about the supposed ineligibility of a large group of voters."
Project Vote believes that a strong democracy must represent all its citizens - or some groups will have a disproportionate impact on the public policy choices facing the nation. When considering bills that affect the electoral process, legislators must consider whether their choices will expand the ability of all citizens to participate in the process or whether their choices will create barriers and restrictions in accessing the ballot box. Strong protections for voting rights coupled with clear, coherent, and transparent election administration procedures are the minimum requirements for an America that consistently lives up to its democratic promise. The activities in state legislatures and the Congress in the run-up to the 2008 general election will help determine how close we come to that ideal.
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