Challenged Ballots

From Gore to Kennedy, Democrats Have Their Own Shady Voter ID Past

Remember the fuzzy math of Illinois and Texas in 1960? Or demands for recounts only in Florida’s blue counties in 2000? A look at the reasons for tighter controls at the polls.

09.14.12 8:45 AM ET

Because it is getting harder and harder for people to care about elections, our political parties keep raising the stakes. If President Obama wins, we are warned, Das Kapital will be mandatory reading in our children’s classroom while American flags are set on fire. Should Mitt Romney triumph, seniors will be rolled out of nursing homes onto busy streets and African-Americans will be put “back in chains.”

The latest outrage du jour concerns an alleged Republican conspiracy to suppress the minority vote. This one is so trendy that it was the centerpiece of a tirade on Aaron Sorkin’s insufferable new series, The Newsroom. For those of us who didn’t see this alleged TV “hit”—or about 99 percent of America—the guy who played the deadbeat dad in Terms of Endearment blasted at nefarious Republican-initiated laws that require prospective voters to show some form of identification at the polls. Specifically cited was a real, live woman, Dorothy Cooper, who was denied the chance to vote because she was unfamiliar with her state’s new law. But we are told her real offense was voting while black. 

Such an incendiary charge was echoed last week at the Democratic National Convention by someone who ought to know better. Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was arrested and beaten during the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, understands as well as anyone how hard Americans, of all races and from both political parties, fought to assure African-American access to the voting booths. He remembers the days, as he told a teary-eyed convention audience, when black voters were required to count the number of jelly beans in a jar or the bubbles on a bar of soap before they could cast a ballot. These were terrible times, indeed. Which is why it is so shameful that Lewis sought to compare today’s Republican officeholders with the Bull Connor bigots of the Deep South (who, like Bull Connor himself, were predominantly Democrats). 

Never one to miss a bandwagon, or steal cheap applause, Bill Clinton got in on this act as well. “If you think it is wrong to change voting procedures to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority, and disabled voters,” he said, “you should support Barack Obama.” (No one bothered to ponder why the Democrats automatically assume that minorities and poor people are too dumb to understand the law—“the soft bigotry of low expectations,” to borrow a phrase—but no matter.)

Lambasting the latest Republican trickery, Clinton and Lewis neglected to mention their own party’s unusual voting history, though surely they both know it. In 1960s Chicago, for example, where members of Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine were known to break off the levers in voting booths in Republican-leaning precincts. Nor did they mention the widespread “irregularities” in Texas and Illinois in 1960—two states that proved to be keys to John F. Kennedy’s razor-thin defeat of Richard Nixon—where Republicans charged that many of their votes weren’t counted by Democratic officials. They also did not reference a Texan named George Parr, who Lyndon Johnson routinely relied on to “discover” just the right number of votes in his county to put Democratic candidates, such as Johnson himself, over the top in election after election. Nor did they mention that during the 2000 election deadlock in Florida, Bill Clinton’s own vice president, Al Gore, demanded a recount only in counties that would be favorable to him. 

Today the Democrats say “voter fraud” is a phony issue, concocted by Republicans to target Democratic voters. But in 2004, the Democrats took voter fraud very seriously, claiming that a mysterious surplus of votes in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, allowed Bush to “steal” the election from John Kerry. Without much evidence, left-wing conspirators called for an investigation. All of which leads one to conclude that the Democrats do want everyone to vote, unless they’re voting for Republicans.

A University of California law professor and author of a recent book on the election process posited the following: “The primary motivation for the fight over voter ID may be less about who actually turns out to vote and more about fundraising and firing up the base.” What a thought. Maybe it is the Democrats who are hatching a conspiracy, a return to their voting policies in the 1960s: “Count every vote—and then add some more.”

Conspirators usually aren’t interested in facts, but just for fun, let’s look at what these “racist” laws actually say. Ohio, for example, now requires that all voters present “a current and valid photo identification card issued by the State of Ohio or the United States government” in order to cast a ballot. Here’s how dumb I am: I assumed you already had to show an ID to vote. Is that so bad? Americans currently have to show photo ID to do all sorts of things—drive a car, board an airplane, purchase alcohol, enter a bar. In Canada and Germany, to cite just two examples, laws also require photo identification in order to vote.

 Ohio, it turns out, is not even as tough as Canada. If voters do not possess a government-issued photo ID, they can prove their eligibility by presenting: a military identification; an original or copy of a current utility bill; an original or copy of a current bank statement; an original or copy of a current government check; or an original or copy of a current paycheck. Check it out for yourself right here.

As for Dorothy Cooper, Aaron Sorkin’s martyr, it is true that having been unfamiliar with the new voter-ID law in her state, she was denied an opportunity to vote in a recent election. Unlike the 1960s, where denying an African American the vote was considered just another day’s work, Cooper’s experience sparked national outrage and offers to help. Ironically for a program that repeatedly excoriates journalists for hiding facts from their viewers, Newsroom hid some facts as well. Cooper, for example, ultimately obtained a legal voter ID. And she did in fact vote in a subsequent election. Nor in his raving did Debra Winger’s lout of a husband inform his viewers that the voter-ID law in her state caused few problems. This fact was attested to by the local NAACP, if the Democrats can trust them. And lest we have too many facts to sort through, some evidence refutes the charge that voter-ID laws depress minority turnout. In Georgia, according to one survey, minority participation rose after a voter-ID law was implemented

The next thing you know, before he is allowed to vote in Illinois, President Obama might have to prove his own citizenship. But, for heaven’s sake, let’s not get into that again.