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Legalizing Voter Suppression in Massachusettes

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

As voters turn out in record numbers for the presidential primaries and the Supreme Court mulls over Indiana's voter identification law, Massachusetts state lawmakers and city officials are engaged in baffling attempts to erect barriers to voter participation.

Particularly troubling about this trend is the easy acceptance of repeatedly discredited right-wing voter suppressionist frames on this issue by elected and public officials. State legislators and city clerks are opposing an Election Day Registration initiative and a city mayor is pushing for photo identification requirements at the polls - all in the name of protecting against so-called voter fraud.

On Tuesday, Lawrence, Mass. mayor, Michael Sullivan, "signed and sent a home rule petition to the Legislature," seeking approval to implement a voter ID law in the city, wrote Jill Harmacinski in local publication, the Eagle-Tribune. It would be the first city to require voter ID in the state.

"But similar proposals, launched by Lawrence and other communities, have failed over the years because lawmakers wouldn't approve such a law for a single community."

Current Mass. election law allows poll workers to request ID or proof of residency "in certain cases," according to Brian McNiff, spokesperson for the Massachusetts secretary of state. But, he adds, such cases must be "'consistent and based on reasonable suspicion.'"

Echoing the talking points and point of view that propelled the recent US Attorneys scandal at the federal Department of Justice, supporters claim the voter ID law would help "bring integrity into city elections, which in Lawrence are almost always followed by reports of fraud," Harmacinski wrote, later adding that past elections include "reports with people being bused in to vote, dead men showing up at the polls and people walking in to vote in place of others."

After this purely anecdotal and inflammatory list of supposed criminal acts, she finally noted that "to date, no one has ever been charged or prosecuted for election-related offenses."

A 2007 Project Vote report. The report further noted that a "review of news stories over a recent two year period found that reports of voter fraud were most often limited to local races and individual acts and fell into three categories: unsubstantiated or false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief and administrative or voter error."

A voter fraud scare is not just at the local level, according to Edward Mason of the Salem News. Some lawmakers and city clerks expressed concern on Tuesday that a bill (S 446) providing Election Day Registration for eligible Massachusetts citizens would create chaos at the polls and vulnerability to voter fraud.

Sen. Edward Augustus (D-Worcester) said the occurrence of Election Day voter fraud was unlikely: "The effort it would take to organize people to falsify under pains and penalties of perjury to get enough people to change the outcome of an election, it's just not practical."

Augustus called the bill's movement "a recognition that people live very busy and much more mobile lives." The opportunity to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day is currently available in seven states. "In those states, voter turnout has increased by 5 percent to 10 percent," Mason reported.

A common misconception by the lawmakers and officials in both stories was the framing of voting as "a privilege," likened to managing a bank account or boarding an airplane. To view voting as such stands in direct contravention to the United States Constitution, which establishes voting as a right of citizenship, thus misconstruing one of the foundational rights of this country as "privilege." Advancing a frame of privilege provides intellectual succor for public and elected officials to craft an unrepresentative electorate that excludes certain groups - often for partisan advantage - using the siren call of so-called voter fraud as the "problem" needing to be solved.

Currently, Project Vote is monitoring all 45 state legislatures in session   for their introduction of voter ID and EDR bills. To date, 19 states introduced legislation requiring extensive identification from voters at the polls and 10 are proposing EDR on the state level.

To track some of these bills, visit Project Vote's election bill tracking website,  ElectionLegislation.org.

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