It was a mainstay of Jim Crow segregation: for 100 years after the Civil War, Southern white Democrats kept eligible blacks from voting with poll taxes, literacy tests and property requirements. Starting in the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court declared these assaults on the heart of American democracy unconstitutional.
Now, with the help of a 2008 Supreme Court decision, Crawford vs. Marion County (Indiana) Election Board, white Republicans in some areas will keep eligible blacks from voting by requiring driver's licenses. Not only is this new-fangled discrimination constitutional, it's spreading.
GOP proponents of the move say they are merely trying to reduce voter fraud. But while occasional efforts to stuff ballot boxes through phony absentee voting still surface, the incidence of individual vote fraud—voting when you aren't eligible—is virtually non-existent, as "The Truth About Vote Fraud," a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, clearly shows. In other words, the problem Republicans claim they want to combat with increased ID requirements doesn't exist. Meanwhile, those ID hurdles facing individuals do nothing to stop the organized insiders who still try to game the system.
The motive here is political, not racial. Republicans aren't bigots like the Jim Crow segregationists. But they know that increased turnout in poor, black neighborhoods is good for Democrats. In that sense, the effort to suppress voting still amounts to the practical equivalent of racism.
In Crawford, the court upheld an Indiana law essentially requiring a passport or driver's license in order to vote. But more than two thirds of Indiana adults have no passports and nearly 15 percent have no driver's licenses. These eligible voters, disproportionately African-American, will need to take a bus or catch a ride from a friend down to the motor vehicles bureau to make sure they obtain a nondriver photo ID. Otherwise, they cannot vote in Indiana this year.
To get an idea of how many African-Americans nationwide lack driver's licenses, recall Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when thousands were stranded without transportation. "Crawford Republicans" could make the old "Jim Crow Democrats" look like pikers when it comes to voter suppression.
Consider Wisconsin, a swing state. Republicans officials there are suing to enforce a "no match, no vote" provision in state regulations, where voters must not only show a photo ID, but establish that it matches the name and number in the Department of Motor Vehicles or Social Security Administration database. (Democrats are resisting the suit.) These lists are riddled with errors in every state, as the Brennan Center has proven in its report, "Restoring the Right to Vote."
How error prone? Florida wrongly purged tens of thousands of law-abiding, mostly Democratic, voters from the rolls in 2000, claiming they were felons. (This, among other things, cost Al Gore the presidency). Even after the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and worldwide attention, the Florida software is still flawed. It requires only an 80 percent match to the name of a convicted felon. "So if there's a murderous John Peterson, the software disenfranchises everyone named John Peters," Andrew Hacker writes in a recent New York Review of Books.
Voters caught in these snafus can have their rights restored but not if they fail to straighten things out before Election Day. Otherwise they are granted "provisional ballots" that are sometimes counted and sometimes not. Even obtaining a provisional ballot can require an appearance in front of a judge in some states. Faced with the hassle, most voters just give up.
The ability of actual felons to get their right to vote back varies by state. It's especially hard for felons to vote in Virginia; a bit easier in Pennsylvania and Michigan. (Other countries are far more generous to ex-convicts, figuring that having paid their debt to society they should be allowed to vote again.)
All of this would seem to favor John McCain over Barack Obama this year, but some voting-rights trends are pointing in the opposite direction.
In Ohio, where the governor and secretary of state changed in 2006 from Republican to Democrat, a new law allows voters to register to vote and fill out an absentee ballot at the same time between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6. This will mean a week of furious campaigning and early voting in a key state.
Advantage Obama. With 470,000 students enrolled in Ohio's public colleges and universities (and nine out of 10 are Ohio residents), expect a bumper crop of young voters.
The combination of voter suppression and early voting make turnout predictions perilous. And without knowing turnout, most polling is deeply flawed.
So about the only thing we know for sure this year is that with the Crawford decision we are seeing a return to the days when one political party saw a huge advantage in preventing as many poor people as possible from voting. That's understandable politically, but also un-American.