WHY THE RESTRICTIONS ON VOTING? (Part 1)

Here’s issue #11 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 12/16/11. This newsletter addresses the issue of voting – an issue that has been simmering in the background but is coming to the forefront.

The ability and right to vote is a foundational principle of our democracy. From the end of the Civil War, through the 19th Amendment in 1920 that gave women the right to vote, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the US has worked to achieve this principle of government by, for, and of the people through universal voting. Until recently, efforts have been focused on making it easier to:

  • Register to vote (e.g., motor voter laws that allowed voting registration when getting a driver’s license and same day registration when voting) and
  • Cast a ballot (e.g., expanded early or absentee voting, on-line or mail voting, and voting on weekends).

Despite these efforts voting participation in the US is well below participation levels in other western democracies. [1]  Turnout in the last six Presidential elections averaged only 53% and only 37% in the last six Congressional elections. Turnout in recent national legislative elections was 93% inAustralia, 66% in theUnited Kingdom, and 61% inCanada.

Starting in the 1990s, a range of efforts with the stated goal of preventing voter fraud were initiated that are making it more difficult to register to vote and to vote. Despite assertions of voter fraud, every non-political investigation of the issue has failed to find any significant voter fraud. “A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter.” [2]  “In fact, Americans are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter fraud.” [3]  “There is no evidence – none – that fraud is a major problem in any state.” [4] 

Nonetheless, in 2011, state governments have enacted an unprecedented array of new laws to make it harder to register and to vote. These new laws are likely to make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to vote in 2012. [5]  The new restrictions on voting and registering include: [6] [7]

  • Requiring a government-issued picture ID to vote (in 14 states including Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin. Vetoed by Governors in 5 states. Proposed in 22 more states.)
  • Requiring proof of citizenship to register. (Kansas andAlabama)
  • Repealing same day voter registration. (Repealed inMaine after being in effect for 38 years without any problems but reinstated by voters in a statewide referendum.) In 2008, over 1 million voters registered on Election Day.
  • Reducing early voting (i.e., prior to Election Day). (Florida,Georgia,Ohio,Tennessee,West Virginia) In 2008, 40 million voters took advantage of early voting.
  • Prohibiting ex-criminals who have served their time from voting. (Florida,Iowa,Kentucky,Virginia)
  • Restricting voter registration drives. (Florida,Texas)

In the next issue, I’ll take a look at who is affected by these changes and why they are happening.


[1]       Caldwell, Patrick, Nov. 2011, “Who stole the election?” The American Prospect

[2]       Berman, Ari, 8/30/11, “The GOP war on voting,” Rolling Stone

[3]       Weiser, W., and Agraharkar, V., 10/22/10, “Ballot security and voter suppression: Information citizens should know,”BrennanCenter for Justice, New York University School of Law

[4]       Roberts, C., and Roberts, S., 10/25/11, “Voting barriers keep popping in 2012,” syndicated column in the Reading Daily Times Chronicle

[5]       Weiser, W., and Norden, L., 10/3/11, “Voting law changes in 2012,”BrennanCenter for Justice, New York University School of Law

[6]       Berman, Ari, 8/30/11, “The GOP war on voting,” Rolling Stone

[7]       Caldwell, Patrick, Nov. 2011, “Who stole the election?” The American Prospect

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