The Republicans’ Keep-Down-the-Vote Strategy

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Sept. 12 (Bloomberg) -- There is a huge voting problem in the U.S., but it isn’t the one Republicans are spending many millions of dollars to correct.

The issue is that not enough people vote: Usually only about three in five of those eligible. Republicans are working frantically to ensure that even fewer do, an anti-get-out-the-vote effort aimed at disenfranchising Democratic-leaning groups: the poor, the young (particularly students) and minorities. Make it hard enough, the theory goes, and they won’t vote.

A chilling glimpse at voter suppression efforts came this week from Common Cause and Demos, two progressive public-interest groups. Called “Bullies at the Ballot Box: Protecting the Freedom to Vote Against Wrongful Challenges and Intimidation,” the report analyzes laws in 10 pivotal states. Its first paragraph quotes the leader of the Tea Party-affiliated True the Vote campaign saying the group’s goal is to make voting “like driving and seeing the police following you.”

Voter suppression has been going on for some time, but with the advent of the Tea Party, it has become more frenzied. In the George W. Bush administration, Karl Rove pursued voter fraud with zeal, and a pattern emerged: U.S. attorneys who didn’t follow his suggestion to bring more such cases got fired. Since then, dozens of states have either enacted or are considering laws that suppress the vote.

Fake Mustaches

Courts have struck down some, such as the U.S. District Court in Ohio that invalidated a state law that would have restricted early voting, but many remain on the books. Even bland, good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters are getting involved: The league’s Indiana chapter sued the state to nullify its voter ID law (the league lost).

There are a variety of ways to curtail voting -- shorter voting hours, selectively understaffed precincts (in 2004, there were 12-hour lines in Gambier, Ohio, home of Kenyon College), poll watchers with broad rights to bring challenges -- but the most prevalent is tighter voter ID requirements. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, “as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo ID.”

The main effect of such laws is to discourage impersonators: the guy who shows up with a fake mustache and sunglasses waving utility bills, trying to pass for a neighbor he knows isn’t voting.

By all means, let’s stop this guy. It won’t take much effort. Although Republicans would have you believe there are thousands of people like him, according to various investigations (including exhaustive ones by the Brennan Center), there are almost none.

For instance, a commission investigating the charge that dead people had voted in South Carolina found no such thing. People die every year, and every year they’re removed from the voter rolls. There was no zombie vote.

Let’s look at what was uncovered by a huge purge in Florida, where Republican Governor Rick Scott, sympathetic to Tea Party complaints, started an investigation. “We’ve gotta make sure U.S. citizens’ right to vote is not diluted,” he said in July.

A governor’s gotta do what a governor’s gotta do. That included casting a wide and expensive dragnet that caught 180,000 suspicious names (how many ending in “-ez,” we don’t know). Of those, 177,400 were citizens, many military veterans. Of the 2,600 remaining, one, Josef Sever, was nailed, pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing.

Sever doesn’t fit the profile of the felon that Republicans are seeking to stop. He’s a Canadian citizen of Austrian descent and a gun nut whose animating issue was the right to bear arms.

‘No Landslide’

One of the favorite quotes of advocates of voter suppression comes from Joseph P. Kennedy, who is said to have sent a telegram to his son John F. before the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary: “Dear Jack: Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. … I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide!”

Never mind that the quote is almost certainly apocryphal. The days of vote-buying, if they ever existed, are long gone. There are specific laws on the books that send to jail (or deport) impersonators at the local precinct. Those laws are bolstered by more general ones targeting identity theft. It’s pretty tough for a person to get away with masquerading these days.

The misplaced focus on voter ID also detracts from attention we should be paying to more common, and consequential, problems: pamphlets giving the wrong date to vote, missing ballot boxes, voting machines that don’t work. Republican groups such as True the Vote are working to sign up volunteers on Election Day to challenge voters as they show up -- a poll tax measured not in dollars but in intimidation.

I like to vote. I get time off to do so, there’s rarely a line at my fully staffed precinct, and there are no strangers staring at me as if I’m from Mars (or El Salvador, for that matter). But if I were Hispanic and had some unpaid parking tickets, or had a mother who was illegal, I would be tempted to stay home.

That’s exactly what the Republican governors and secretaries of state instigating these efforts -- and they’re all Republicans -- are counting on. The battle over who gets to vote and how easily is not only legal but also, obviously, political. It could even determine the outcome of Election Day.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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