The wave of new voter restrictions and scare tactics being implemented for the 2012 elections -- such as voter ID laws, early voting restrictions, threatening billboards, misleading mailers and vigilante poll watchers -- could intimidate countless numbers of Americans from exercising their right to vote.
Republicans have proposed voting restrictions in a majority of states since 2011, including strict voter ID laws and limits on early voting and voter registration. Though many of the laws have been blunted, confusion about voting requirements could still make it harder for many Americans to exercise their right to the franchise. At the same time, the Tea Party group "True the Vote" -- which has been accused of voter intimidation -- is pledging to send one million observers to polling places on November 6, and has been filing largely baseless lawsuits to purge voters from the rolls.
Each of these measures is purportedly designed to prevent "voter fraud," despite no evidence that in-person fraud or double-voting actually exists on a significant scale, and certainly not on a level that could affect the outcome of an election. "It makes no sense for individual voters to impersonate someone," Rutgers public policy professor Lori Minnite recently told The New Yorker. "It's like committing a felony at the police station, with virtually no chance of affecting the election outcome." University of California-Irvine election law professor Rick Hasen told The New Yorker that he "tried to find a single case" since 1980 when "an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter-impersonation fraud," but found nothing.
While there is no evidence "voter fraud" has had an impact on any modern election, the new wave of voter restrictions and election intimidation tactics threaten to have an impact on election results in 2012. Earlier estimates suggested as many as 5 million voters could be affected by voter ID laws and limits on voter registration and early voting. Countless others will never go to the polls because of confusing or misleading information, or will turn away when confronted by vigilante poll watchers. Voter registration fraud -- which is distinct from "voter fraud" like double voting -- could also mean valid ballots will not be counted.
Laws Could Affect Millions, but Some Have Been Halted
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University estimates that 25 laws and 2 executive actions have passed in 19 states since the beginning of 2011. This includes voter ID laws (introduced in 34 states and signed into law in eight states, and on Minnesota's ballot in November), laws requiring proof of citizenship like a birth certificate or passport to register or vote (introduced in 17 states and passed in three), as well as new limits on early voting or voting registration drives. Though not every state will have a voter ID law in place for the November election, an estimated eleven percent of voting-age Americans -- over 21 million citizens across the country -- do not have the forms of ID required under the voter ID laws, particularly people of color and the elderly, the same populations disproportionately affected by new limits on voting registration and early voting. The Brennan Center has called the wave of laws "the biggest rollback in voting rights since the Jim Crow era."
But voting rights advocates have successfully blocked many laws in time for the November election.
Two separate courts in Wisconsin struck down that state's law as an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, as the law could impact as many as 300,000 eligible voters. In Pennsylvania, where as many as 700,000 voters lacked ID, a state court blocked the law before this November's election, finding that few voters had been able to access IDs and many could be disenfranchised.
The Department of Justice has blocked laws in three states requiring preclearance under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi -- and a federal judge in Texas found that the state's voter ID law violates the Act by disproportionately impacting people of color and the poor. Additionally, one federal judge blocked Florida's registration drive restrictions and another blocked its limits on early voting for five counties covered by the Voting Rights Act. Another federal judge will require that Ohio maintain its early voting for the three days before the election, a period during which tens of thousands of African-Americans cast their vote in 2008.
Despite Voting Rights Victories, Confusion Remains
Despite these victories for voting rights advocates, new voter ID laws will be in effect in Kansas and Tennessee this November, and even in states like Pennsylvania and Mississippi where the laws are blocked, voters have still been receiving messages they must have an ID to vote, potentially deterring eligible voters who lack ID from exercising their right to the franchise.
In Wisconsin and Ohio, both hotly contested swing states, an anonymous group funded billboards in low-income areas threatening "voter fraud is a felony," which could intimidate otherwise eligible voters. Also in those states, voters in Democratic areas have received mailers from the Republican Party with incorrect information about their polling places or the wrong election date. Voters in Florida, another swing state, have also received mailers with incorrect voting information. Spanish-speaking voters in Arizona's Maricopa County were told to vote two days late, whereas English-speaking voters were informed of the correct date. Across the country, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are prohibited from voting because of a felony conviction.
It is difficult to quantify what impact these laws will have on turnout. It is not known how many citizens who lack ID would have voted in the absence of a voter ID law (comparisons from election-to-election are imprecise), nor is it known how many voters won't go to the polls because of confusing messages about election dates, ID requirements, or veiled threats.
Voter Vigilantes Pose Other Burdens
For those voters who do go to the polls, they may face further intimidation from poll watchers trained by the Tea Party-affiliated True the Vote, which claims their activities are designed to make voters at polling stations feel like they are "driving with the police following you." True the Vote is adamant that voter fraud exists (despite little evidence) and trains volunteers to patrol for voter fraud in low-income neighborhoods of color, which has prompted accusations of voter intimidation. For months the group has been scouring voter registration databases to compile a list of voters to challenge at the polls.
The group also intervened in Wisconsin's 2012 gubernatorial recall election, where they unsuccessfully tried to discredit the recall petition drive by creating a sloppy alternate database and making inaccurate assertions about the "integrity" of the petition-gathering effort. During the recall election itself, the group trained a handful of poll watchers in their "voter integrity" techniques -- and perhaps not surprisingly, the League of Women Voters fielded hundreds of complaints of voter intimidation or interference, many from college students interrogated about their residency by True the Vote poll observers. After the recall election, Wisconsin's elections board released a statement expressing concern about the "disturbing reports and complaints about unacceptable, illegal behavior by [poll] observers." True the Vote took it personally.
Even if True the Vote is overstating its influence and fails to meet its one million poll watcher goal for November, just a few aggressive poll watchers can scare off other voters and lead to long lines. Perhaps because of the risk that overzealous poll watchers could make it harder to vote on election day, the Obama campaign is encouraging supporters to vote early -- which is why the Ohio decision protecting early voting the weekend before the election could be crucial for Democrats.
GOP Voter Registration Fraud Could Cause Disenfranchisement
Perhaps the clearest form of voter suppression has come directly from a group contracted by the Republican Party.
In eight swing states the Republican National Committee hired a firm run by GOP strategist Nathan Sproul to conduct voter registration drives, despite Sproul having been connected to a variety of voter registration fraud allegations, including fake registrations as well as claims that his employees destroyed registration forms from Democratic voters. Sproul told the Los Angeles Times that he set up the firm, called "Strategic Allied Consulting," because RNC officials did not want his role in the voter registration to become public.
In recent weeks, one hundred questionable voter registrations connected to Sproul's firm have appeared in Florida. Many of the forms involved a voter mysteriously switching their party affiliations to Republican. In Virginia, where the state Republican Party also had contracted with Sproul's firm, a paid voter registration supervisor has been charged with eight felony counts and five misdemeanors for destroying voter registration forms.
If a voter goes to their polling place but authorities cannot find their registration they will be disenfranchised. Voters might be able to cast a provisional ballot but it will not be counted if authorities cannot find their registration.
None of the election fraud connected to Sproul would have been prevented by requiring photo ID at the polls.
In September, after reports emerged of the fraudulent voter registration forms in Florida, the RNC and state GOP parties cut ties with the group. But another firm run by Sproul, Issue Advocacy Partners, has continued to operate in Wisconsin, Virginia, and Iowa.
Selective Right Wing "Voter Fraud" Focus
In May and June of this year, the Republican Party of Wisconsin paid Sproul's Issue Advocacy Partners $505,000 to canvass voters for Governor Scott Walker's recall election. Incredibly, at the same time the GOP was contracting with a firm that had long ties to fraudulent voter registration, party leaders were making unfounded and discredited claims that in-person voter fraud by Democrats in Wisconsin was "rampant" and could affect the outcome of the June 5 election. After Walker and three Republican senators survived their recall elections, none on the right questioned the legitimacy of their victories -- but in the one district where a Republican lost, GOP leaders and True the Vote declared that voter fraud tainted the results to justify calls for a recount.
The same selective hysteria is at play with the current Sproul controversy.
Sproul's voter registration fraud operation is more extensive than the handful of fake registration cards connected to ACORN in the 2008 elections but has not prompted the same media firestorm. As noted by Ari Berman at The Nation, Fox News ran 122 stories on ACORN between 2007 and 2008, but has mentioned Strategic Allied Consulting only three times since the scandal broke and has not aired a single report on voter registration fraud in Virginia.