Marching Backward From Selma on Right to Vote: Michael Waldman

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sparked a ruckus, of course, by stripping public-sector workers of most collective-bargaining rights. More quietly, and with possibly equal ramifications, Republican lawmakers in Madison and other state capitals are trying to muscle through rules making it harder for millions of citizens to vote.

Americans have always battled over the ballot. Since the republic was formed when only white men with property could vote, we have widened the circle of democracy, in fits and starts, to include blacks and women. Now, for the first time in a century we see a swift, seemingly coordinated drive to actually shrink voting rights. Consider the past two weeks of startling events.

In Wisconsin, when Democratic senators fled, Walker, a Republican, tried to pass a new voting law. Under its terms, eligible citizens could vote only if they produced a government photo identification with a current address. Few of the state’s college students have such an ID. Lawmakers yanked the bill when it turned out to cost millions of dollars, mocking the idea that it would help balance the budget. No doubt it will return.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Governor Rick Scott on March 9 abruptly denied the right to vote to even nonviolent former felons who have completed their sentences. This undid a proud accomplishment of the previous governor, Republican Charlie Crist. The state’s lifetime felony voting ban was first enacted during Reconstruction to try to curb black voting. Today, 1 million Floridians pay taxes and can’t vote, ever.

‘Foolish’ Voters

In New Hampshire, lawmakers tried to pass the country’s tightest restrictions on student voting. The bill died this week after a Washington Post report and accompanying YouTube video quoted the state’s Republican House speaker saying he wanted to target “foolish” college students who vote liberal because “they don’t have life experience and they just vote their feelings.” Happily, this time, the College Republicans and Democrats both howled.

And later this month in Texas, a Tea Party offshoot calling itself “True the Vote” gathers in a national conference. Its demand: voters should have to prove citizenship by producing documents such as a birth certificate or passport on Election Day. Activists will be trained in how to challenge voters at the polls. Vigilance could shade into vigilantism.

At this point, you may be wondering if you missed the newspaper the day it revealed massive fraud. In fact, there is simply no evidence of widespread voter impersonation, the only kind of fraud these new rules would affect. That’s not “little” evidence -- no evidence. Statistically you are more likely to get killed by lightning than to commit voter fraud, based on law enforcement records.

Nobody Wants Fraud

The only recent high-profile voter fraud prosecution came last week when Indiana’s top election official was charged with casting a ballot from a district where he didn’t live.

Yet this voter fraud obsession has taken on the elements of a mass delusion. It’s “birtherism” as a governing strategy. At a time of red ink and mass unemployment, the focus is odd, to say the least. To be sure, nobody wants fraud. And we should insist that people are who they say they are, and find ways to prove it. But these new rules seem surgically targeted to voting by specific groups, whether minorities, students or the poor.

In the Tammany Hall era, Democrats stuffed ballot boxes with glee. These days, it’s Republicans who have made voter suppression a long-term political strategy. The party is waging a get-out-the-vote drive, in reverse.

Mobile Voters

We do urgently need to modernize our rickety voter registration system. Lists are rife with error and duplication. Dead people stay on the rolls not because they are voting but because nobody removes their names. We’re the only major democracy that makes people register themselves, then lets them fall off the rolls when they move (something one in five of us do every year).

The U.S. could easily switch to a system where government kept the list of eligible voters, and updated it automatically. That would add as many as 65 million eligible citizens to the rolls, permanently. It would help curb potential fraud, too.  Mickey Mouse” won’t show up on any government rolls (even in Florida, where he lives).

New computerized statewide voter lists put this reform in reach. Modernizing voter registration would cut costs and ease Election Day chaos. That’s something conservative “True the Vote” and progressive “Rock the Vote” should agree on. In 17 states recently, elements of this reform have been implemented - - quietly, and without partisan rancor.

March 7 marked the anniversary of the epochal 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, protesters paid for democracy with their bodies and blood. Regardless of party, let’s make sure when it comes to voting, we’re not marching backward.

Michael Waldman, former head speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the author of “My Fellow Americans.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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