Here are two articles that link the tactics of voter suppression with "interests" in the oil industry. The first article (concerning Canada) is entitled Robocalls and the petrostate and the second article (concerning the US) is entitled In a campaign supported by the Koch brothers, Republicans are working to prevent millions of Democrats from voting next year. The Koch brothers being of Koch Industries, the privately owned US energy giant.
Robocalls and the petrostate
By Briony Penn, April 2012
Links between election fraud and oil interests are so thick, it appears bitumen itself is lubricating the connections.
OVER TWO DAYS in January, 2010, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy held a campaign school at Delta Ocean Pointe Resort in Victoria in preparation for the 2011 election. Revelations of what went on during those two days has yielded intriguing insight into what might lie behind the current robocall scandal. The Manning Centre is a Conservative think-tank operating out of Calgary, headed by Preston Manning, and board members include Gwyn Morgan, ex-CEO of EnCana Corp and other luminaries of the oil and gas industry.
Organizers of the campaign school had sent invitations to various Conservative and former Reform party members and campaign teams, encouraging them to attend. One such invitation went to John Fryer, a former member of the Reform Party but now a Green Party federal council member and campaign manager for Elizabeth May. Fryer is not the kind of politico you might expect to be attending a Manning Centre event, having won the Order of Canada for his work on international labour policy. Fryer’s experiences at the two-day event were described in a letter to the Globe and Mail on March 3, 2012, as the election fraud scandal unfolded.
Fryer wrote, “Topics covered included voter identification. Discussion ensued about suppression techniques. Instructors explained voter suppression tactics were borrowed from those used by the US Republican Party. Many kinds of suppression calls were canvassed. Another instructor gave detailed explanations of how robocalls worked, techniques for recording messages, plus costs involved. He distributed his business card upon request. Instructors made it clear that robocalling and voter suppression were an acceptable and normal part of winning political campaigns. With election ethics like this, a more compelling case for changing to a system of proportional representation where each and every vote counts is hard to imagine.”
Vancouver Observer reporter Emma Pullman had also interviewed Fryer. Pullman works for DeSmogBlog, investigating the climate denial industry and its financial backers in the oil industry. In her article, details of the workshop were elaborated upon, including the names of the instructors: Dimitri Pantazopoulos, a former pollster for the federal Conservatives, now the Principal Secretary to Premier Christy Clark; Richard Ciano and Nick Kouvalis of Campaign Research, both long-term Conservative party operatives; and Kory Teneycke, Prime Minister Harper’s former director of communications, and the main booster for Fox North TV.
Following the media exposure, both Fryer and the Observer received libel threats. Fryer was asked by a Campaign Research lawyer to publish a letter saying his comments were not intended to suggest that “Mr Couvalis, Mr Ciano or Campaign Research provided, discussed or made suggestions to participants regarding any illegal or unethical campaign or election tactics,” which he did. The Observer was asked to print disclaimers throughout its article, which they did. Fryer declined to speak with me.
When Manning Centre for Building Democracy was asked for its response to Fryer’s comments, Director of Com-munications Olivier Ballou stated that Fryer’s retraction letter spoke to the issue. But Pullman says, “Focusing on Fryer’s apology letter to the instructors misses the point. As I wrote in the article, it was the attendees who discussed using the methods that were being taught to make misleading phone calls.” The Manning Centre’s Ballou countered that no other attendees seemed to be corroborating Fryer’s story. According to a list of those who attended obtained by Pullman, most attendees were from federal conservative campaign teams in local ridings, such as those for Troy de Souza and Patrick Hunt of Juan de Fuca and Victoria. In an interview, Hunt denied there was any reference to voter suppression during the course. Preston Manning, in a recent speech, stated: “Any political strategy, tactic, or technology which deliberately employs a lie to misdirect or mislead a voter is deplorable ethically and for the damage it does to the democratic process and public confidence in all parties and politicians.”
But Hugh Kruzel, an independent municipal candidate from Victoria who attended the Delta Ocean Pointe campaign school says, “By and large I swallowed some of the kool aid about what the potential lessons learned from the US were, but it didn’t have any sticking power for me. If I heard something that I would never be involved in, I got up and had a coffee. Ethically, I would rather get out the vote than work to ensure other voices are snuffed. Can I remember exactly discussions about voter suppression? I believe some of that was discussed, even at the round table level.”
The Manning Centre and oil
So what is the Manning Centre for Building Democracy and who funds it? Started in 2005 by Preston Manning, its website says it’s “a national not-for-profit organization supporting research, educational, and communications initiatives designed to achieve a more democratic society in Canada guided by conservative principles.”
Manning’s Ballou says “private donations” fund the organization. However, Preston Manning’s own speeches on the website identify some of these “private donors” including Canadian Natural Resources, Shell Canada, Spectra Energy, and TransCanada among others—large publicly-traded oil sector companies.
One private donor identified is Gwyn Morgan. Morgan, in addition to his long affiliation with EnCana, is a colleague of and former fundraiser for Harper and the Conservative Party, advisor to Premier Christy Clark, and chair of the board of SNC Lavalin. SNC Lavalin is currently negotiating the purchase of the nationally-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) who make Candu reactors. Nuclear energy has long been proposed as a key future power source for the bitumen extraction process. The Harper Record (published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) notes that AECL is working with Shell to explore nuclear potential in the tar sands.
Other directors of the Manning Centre include Chairman Cliff Fryers (no relation to John Fryer) a tax litigator, general counsel for Mobil Oil Canada Ltd, governor of the Canadian Tax Foundation and a director of the Canadian Petroleum Tax Society; and secretary and treasurer Blair Nixon, tax counsel to a number of natural resources companies.
The connection between the interests of oil companies and the Manning Centre is clear. The connection between the Manning Centre and activities which would lead to electoral fraud are becoming clear.
The result of such connections to, and funding from, oil companies for the Manning Centre—and other such organizations—is a skewed democracy in which petrodollars help elect politicians, usually Conservative, that are oil-patch-friendly. This can happen directly or indirectly, with oil revenue funding politicians or institutions that work to create an oil-friendly culture. The power of big oil to influence public policy in the area of climate change has been well documented by such watchdog groups as DeSmogBlog, who have been tracking the financing of fake science institutes that deny climate change and obfuscate policy. And Morgan himself gave Harper’s old advocacy group, the National Citizen’s Coalition, $20,000 for fighting Stephane Dion’s carbon tax plan prior to the 2008 election.
The aim is to get and keep Conservatives in power, preferably with a majority.
The Alberta experience
Andrew Nikiforuk, an award-winning journalist and author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent and a long-standing critic of Albertan petrostate politics (where the Conservative party has been in power for over 40 years) says, “A government that has access to the enormous stores of hydrocarbons can use the money to manipulate the process and keep themselves in power, and that means subverting the election process and undermining the electoral institutions.” He goes on to describe the various ways in which oil revenue lubricates the subversion process. “First there is the ability of a government running on oil revenue with no savings plan to cover up mistakes, bribe citizens and institutions, lower taxes and fund expensive infrastructure programs to win votes.”
He also suggests: “There are no institutional watchdogs in petrostates, they only appoint puppies.” The non-puppies tend to get fired, Nikiforuk says, recounting the case of Alberta’s Chief Electoral Officer Lorne Gibson. In 2007, Winnipeg-born Gibson made his first mistake by recommending charges in nine cases of illegal electoral funding where schools and municipalities had funded the Conservative Party, all of which were curiously dropped.
In 2008, Gibson followed up after the provincial election with a scathing report documenting election irregularities. These included a lack of impartiality by the governing Conservative Party in appointing large numbers of electoral returning officers having ties to the Conservatives. Gibson’s report described tactics used to appoint electoral officers, which were sometimes delayed until the day before the election, thus preventing a quarter of Alberta’s voters from getting pre-registered. The ensuing delays, confusion, jammed websites and other voter suppression tactics were well documented in Gibson’s report.
He made extensive recommendations for electoral reform and then was promptly fired for his efforts by a legislative committee stacked with Conservatives.
Subsequent to Gibson’s firing, Paula Simons, a columnist with the Edmonton Journal, wrote: “The sequence of events sends a terrible message to other independent legislative officers, such as the auditor general, the information and privacy commissioner, the ethics commissioner and the ombudsman. Are they to understand that they too might lose their appointments if they criticize and embarrass the government?”
Gibson is currently in court appealing wrongful dismissal.
Nikiforuk notes, “That culture of bending the rules has expanded beyond the borders of Alberta now into the rest of Canada with the petrostate party winning its federal majority.”
Ground Zero: Saanich–Gulf Islands
Locally, Saanich–Gulf Islands’ residents have experienced at least two elections in which irregularities occurred. Viewed as a swing riding in both the 2008 and 2011 federal elections, it was targeted by robocalls apparently trying to suppress the vote for non-Conservative candidates.
As the Liberal candidate in the 2008 election, I have personal experience with questionable third-party funding and robocalls.
Gary Lunn, Harper’s then-Minister of Natural Resources, was the incumbent. The riding’s strategic location at the edge of the Pacific put it at the heart of the national debate on whether bitumen could be safely distributed from our shores via pipelines and tankers. Lunn’s campaign was well supported by the oil patch gang, including Gwyn Morgan, who chose to retire in the area and whose wife headed a third-party advertiser (she also sits on the Council of Advisors for the Manning Centre).
There were five such third-party organizations registered to support Lunn in that election, four of whom had the same address—a law office under the name of lawyer Bruce Hallsor. Hallsor is a prominent Conservative operative. A former member of the BC Chief Electoral Officer’s Advisory Committee, vice-president of the Conservatives’ Saanich–Gulf Islands Electoral District Association, and former director of Fair Voting BC, he was also named in Election Canada’s investigation of a so-called “in-and-out scheme” in his capacity as co-chair of the Conservative campaigns in BC in 2006.
The in-and-out scheme was an illegal mechanism whereby the Conservative Party shifted national advertising money in and out of local riding campaign accounts in order to claim it as local spending. On March 12, 2012 the Conservatives lost their federal court appeal and were found guilty of illegal election financing during the 2006 election. They were fined $52,000 although they exceeded spending limits by $1.3 million.
In the 2008 election, third-party advertisers—each allowed to spend $3666—flooded the Saanich–Gulf Islands riding with pro-Conservative ads. Under the Canada Elections Act such advertising could only come from third- party groups that were at “arm’s length” from campaign workers. But at a meeting convened by Elections Canada officials prior to the election for all candidates, their managers, agents and riding association presidents, Hallsor was sitting next to his Conservative candidate. It’s also illegal to split one third-party group into multiple organizations to increase funding, yet four third-party advertisers shared Halsor’s law office address.
Besides the ad expenditures, on the eve of the election a robocall went out to thousands of NDP supporters, purporting to be from Progressive Voters Association of Saanich–Gulf Islands, urging them to vote for the NDP candidate. No mention was made in the call that the candidate had stepped down, or that his withdrawal had been too late to have his name removed from the ballot. In effect, it split the progressive vote enough for Lunn to win the seat.
Fast forward to the 2011 election. Saanich–Gulf Islands was again viewed as a close race and complaints of robocalls aiming to suppress the vote were again heard. The Green Party’s leader Elizabeth May, who defeated Lunn, has called the robocall scandal “a genuine emergency with regard to the essential integrity of our democratic institutions,” and called (unsuccessfully) for an emergency debate on the matter.
Local political support for a pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the coast, and for tankers to transport bitumen through hazardous narrow passages along BC’s coast, has come solely from the Conservatives. In both recent Saanich–Gulf Islands’ elections, the Northern Gateway pipeline had been a central campaign issue. The very first public demonstration—ever—in Sidney was held to protest the northern Gateway pipeline. It was supported by Liberals, Greens and the NDP—as was the moratorium on tanker traffic on the northern coast. With a Conservative minority government, there was no way the pipeline was ever going to fly. But a majority government would be a game changer. The oil could flow.
Jim Harris, writing for Huffington Post, claims, “Harper won his ‘majority’ with 6848 votes. That’s the difference between a Conservative candidate getting elected and the second-place candidate in the 14 closest races that the Conservatives ‘won.’”
Can Elections Canada be trusted?
Elections Canada is now combing through at least 700 individual complaints (31,000 counting those sent through internet forms organized by advocacy groups) in dozens of ridings stemming from the current robocall scandal.
The experience in Saanich–Gulf Islands does not inspire confidence that Elections Canada will get to the bottom (or top) of who misled citizens about polling stations in an effort to suppress non-Conservative votes.
After the 2008 election, both Liberal and NDP Saanich–Gulf Islands riding associations sent a complaint package to Elections Canada about the irregularities. On March 2, 2009, Elections Canada responded: “Our investigator found no one who had actually been influenced in their vote because of the purported telephone call. Nor was he able to identify the source of the person or persons who actually made the calls. As a result of the foregoing, our investigation has now been concluded.” With regard to the third-party advertisers, they wrote “it is within the discretion of the Political Financing and Audit Directorate to refer the matter to the Commissioner for his consideration.” As far as I know, no follow-up ever took place.
After the 2008 experience, it was clear where all this would lead. Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch saw evidence of collusion between third-party groups. He said, “If they are allowed to get away with this [in Saanich–Gulf Islands] what happens if there’s a case where the candidate is still there? Someone could do bulk calling on behalf of whichever candidate you think will split your candidate’s vote.”
Conacher had completed an analysis of Election Canada’s enforcement since 2004 “revealing that the main problem is no one can tell whether Elections Canada has been enforcing the law fairly and properly because it has failed to report details of how it has investigated and ruled on 2284 complaints in the past years.”
In 2009, Will Horter of the Dogwood Initiative, a public-interest non-profit that has been lobbying against oil tankers on the coast, wrote “If someone with subpoena powers doesn’t step up with some investigative muscle, I predict many more Karl-Rove-like black-op operations in future elections.”
Given the Saanich experience, and Alberta’s record before that, is there any reason to be confident Stephen Harper’s Conservative government will not interfere with Elections Canada as they try to investigate the robocall scandal? Will the details be made available? Will the scandal be contained by making “Pierre Poutine” the fall guy? Where is the deeper analysis in the corporate media of the structural erosion of the country’s democratic processes? And who is tracking the oil money lubricating the decline?
These are all question that need to be answered, and soon. Andrew Nikiforuk considers this a political emergency for the country. “Once petrostates seize power, the bar is lowered on everything and it is very difficult to raise it back up.” He cites eroding labour health and safety standards like that which led to two Chinese temporary workers being crushed to death at the Canadian Natural Resources Horizon project. Chinese company Sinopec is appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn a ruling that would force CNRH to stand trial for the deaths and face 53 safety charges.
This November— if Harper doesn’t stop the process prematurely—the Joint Review Panel for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project will be in Victoria to hear appellants’ comments on the pipeline. Two of the panel are from Calgary and the third is a manager of a mineral exploration company out of Ontario. Given the money at stake and the way petrodollars are subverting democracy, it’s hard to have much confidence that the panel will be free of political interference. Andrew Nikiforuk warns, “Petrostates won’t tolerate any kind of democratic intervention, as they see it as a threat to their power.”
But as citizens, we have to try, don’t we?
Briony Penn, PhD, is a fifth-generation Vancouver Islander, artist, journalist, environmental educator and mother who believes the rising petrostate is an emergency for both democracy and the planet.
The GOP War on Voting
In a campaign supported by the Koch brothers, Republicans are working to prevent millions of Democrats from voting next year
by: Ari Berman
Rolling Stone Magazine
As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots. "What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century," says Judith Browne-Dianis, who monitors barriers to voting as co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.
Republicans have long tried to drive Democratic voters away from the polls. "I don't want everybody to vote," the influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. "As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." But since the 2010 election, thanks to a conservative advocacy group founded by Weyrich, the GOP's effort to disrupt voting rights has been more widespread and effective than ever. In a systematic campaign orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council – and funded in part by David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the Tea Party – 38 states introduced legislation this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.
All told, a dozen states have approved new obstacles to voting. Kansas and Alabama now require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship before registering. Florida and Texas made it harder for groups like the League of Women Voters to register new voters. Maine repealed Election Day voter registration, which had been on the books since 1973. Five states – Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia – cut short their early voting periods. Florida and Iowa barred all ex-felons from the polls, disenfranchising thousands of previously eligible voters. And six states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures – Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – will require voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. More than 10 percent of U.S. citizens lack such identification, and the numbers are even higher among constituencies that traditionally lean Democratic – including 18 percent of young voters and 25 percent of African-Americans.
Taken together, such measures could significantly dampen the Democratic turnout next year – perhaps enough to shift the outcome in favor of the GOP. "One of the most pervasive political movements going on outside Washington today is the disciplined, passionate, determined effort of Republican governors and legislators to keep most of you from voting next time," Bill Clinton told a group of student activists in July. "Why is all of this going on? This is not rocket science. They are trying to make the 2012 electorate look more like the 2010 electorate than the 2008 electorate" – a reference to the dominance of the Tea Party last year, compared to the millions of students and minorities who turned out for Obama. "There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today."
To hear Republicans tell it, they are waging a virtuous campaign to crack down on rampant voter fraud – a curious position for a party that managed to seize control of the White House in 2000 despite having lost the popular vote. After taking power, the Bush administration declared war on voter fraud, making it a "top priority" for federal prosecutors. In 2006, the Justice Department fired two U.S. attorneys who refused to pursue trumped-up cases of voter fraud in New Mexico and Washington, and Karl Rove called illegal voting "an enormous and growing problem." In parts of America, he told the Republican National Lawyers Association, "we are beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are colonels in mirrored sunglasses." According to the GOP, community organizers like ACORN were actively recruiting armies of fake voters to misrepresent themselves at the polls and cast illegal ballots for the Democrats.
Even at the time, there was no evidence to back up such outlandish claims. A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop. Out of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud – and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility. A much-hyped investigation in Wisconsin, meanwhile, led to the prosecution of only .0007 percent of the local electorate for alleged voter fraud. "Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere," joked Stephen Colbert. A 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading advocate for voting rights at the New York University School of Law, quantified the problem in stark terms. "It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning," the report calculated, "than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."
GOP outcries over the phantom menace of voter fraud escalated after 2008, when Obama's candidacy attracted historic numbers of first-time voters. In the 29 states that record party affiliation, roughly two-thirds of new voters registered as Democrats in 2007 and 2008 – and Obama won nearly 70 percent of their votes. In Florida alone, Democrats added more than 600,000 new voters in the run-up to the 2008 election, and those who went to the polls favored Obama over John McCain by 19 points. "This latest flood of attacks on voting rights is a direct shot at the communities that came out in historic numbers for the first time in 2008 and put Obama over the top," says Tova Wang, an elections-reform expert at Demos, a progressive think tank.
No one has done more to stir up fears about the manufactured threat of voter fraud than Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a top adviser in the Bush Justice Department who has become a rising star in the GOP. "We need a Kris Kobach in every state," declared Michelle Malkin, the conservative pundit. This year, Kobach successfully fought for a law requiring every Kansan to show proof of citizenship in order to vote – even though the state prosecuted only one case of voter fraud in the past five years. The new restriction fused anti-immigrant hysteria with voter-fraud paranoia. "In Kansas, the illegal registration of alien voters has become pervasive," Kobach claimed, offering no substantiating evidence.
Kobach also asserted that dead people were casting ballots, singling out a deceased Kansan named Alfred K. Brewer as one such zombie voter. There was only one problem: Brewer was still very much alive. The Wichita Eagle found him working in his front yard. "I don't think this is heaven," Brewer told the paper. "Not when I'm raking leaves."
Kobach might be the gop's most outspoken crusader working to prevent citizens from voting, but he's far from the only one. "Voting rights are under attack in America," Rep. John Lewis, who was brutally beaten in Alabama while marching during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, observed during an impassioned speech on the House floor in July. "There's a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process."
The Republican effort, coordinated and funded at the national level, has focused on disenfranchising voters in four key areas:
Barriers to Registration Since January, six states have introduced legislation to impose new restrictions on voter registration drives run by groups like Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters. In May, the GOP-controlled legislature in Florida passed a law requiring anyone who signs up new voters to hand in registration forms to the state board of elections within 48 hours of collecting them, and to comply with a barrage of onerous, bureaucratic requirements. Those found to have submitted late forms would face a $1,000 fine, as well as possible felony prosecution.
As a result, the law threatens to turn civic-minded volunteers into inadvertent criminals. Denouncing the legislation as "good old-fashioned voter suppression," the League of Women Voters announced that it was ending its registration efforts in Florida, where it has been signing up new voters for the past 70 years. Rock the Vote, which helped 2.5 million voters to register in 2008, could soon follow suit. "We're hoping not to shut down," says Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, "but I can't say with any certainty that we'll be able to continue the work we're doing."
The registration law took effect one day after it passed, under an emergency statute designed for "an immediate danger to the public health, safety or welfare." In reality, though, there's no evidence that registering fake voters is a significant problem in the state. Over the past three years, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has received just 31 cases of suspected voter fraud, resulting in only three arrests statewide. "No one could give me an example of all this fraud they speak about," said Mike Fasano, a Republican state senator who bucked his party and voted against the registration law. What's more, the law serves no useful purpose: Under the Help America Vote Act passed by Congress in 2002, all new voters must show identity before registering to vote.
Cuts to Early Voting After the recount debacle in Florida in 2000, allowing voters to cast their ballots early emerged as a popular bipartisan reform. Early voting not only meant shorter lines on Election Day, it has helped boost turnout in a number of states – the true measure of a successful democracy. "I think it's great," Jeb Bush said in 2004. "It's another reform we added that has helped provide access to the polls and provide a convenience. And we're going to have a high voter turnout here, and I think that's wonderful."
But Republican support for early voting vanished after Obama utilized it as a key part of his strategy in 2008. Nearly 30 percent of the electorate voted early that year, and they favored Obama over McCain by 10 points. The strategy proved especially effective in Florida, where blacks outnumbered whites by two to one among early voters, and in Ohio, where Obama received fewer votes than McCain on Election Day but ended up winning by 263,000 ballots, thanks to his advantage among early voters in urban areas like Cleveland and Columbus.
That may explain why both Florida and Ohio – which now have conservative Republican governors – have dramatically curtailed early voting for 2012. Next year, early voting will be cut from 14 to eight days in Florida and from 35 to 11 days in Ohio, with limited hours on weekends. In addition, both states banned voting on the Sunday before the election – a day when black churches historically mobilize their constituents. Once again, there appears to be nothing to justify the changes other than pure politics. "There is no evidence that any form of convenience voting has led to higher levels of fraud," reports the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College.
Photo IDs By far the biggest change in election rules for 2012 is the number of states requiring a government-issued photo ID, the most important tactic in the Republican war on voting. In April 2008, the Supreme Court upheld a photo-ID law in Indiana, even though state GOP officials couldn't provide a single instance of a voter committing the type of fraud the new ID law was supposed to stop. Emboldened by the ruling, Republicans launched a nationwide effort to implement similar barriers to voting in dozens of states.
The campaign was coordinated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which provided GOP legislators with draft legislation based on Indiana's ID requirement. In five states that passed such laws in the past year – Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin – the measures were sponsored by legislators who are members of ALEC. "We're seeing the same legislation being proposed state by state by state," says Smith of Rock the Vote. "And they're not being shy in any of these places about clearly and blatantly targeting specific demographic groups, including students."
In Texas, under "emergency" legislation passed by the GOP-dominated legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Perry, a concealed-weapon permit is considered an acceptable ID but a student ID is not. Republicans in Wisconsin, meanwhile, mandated that students can only vote if their IDs include a current address, birth date, signature and two-year expiration date – requirements that no college or university ID in the state currently meets. As a result, 242,000 students in Wisconsin may lack the documentation required to vote next year. "It's like creating a second class of citizens in terms of who gets to vote," says Analiese Eicher, a Dane County board supervisor.
The barriers erected in Texas and Wisconsin go beyond what the Supreme Court upheld in Indiana, where 99 percent of state voters possess the requisite IDs and can turn to full-time DMVs in every county to obtain the proper documentation. By contrast, roughly half of all black and Hispanic residents in Wisconsin do not have a driver's license, and the state staffs barely half as many DMVs as Indiana – a quarter of which are open less than one day a month. To make matters worse, Gov. Scott Walker tried to shut down 16 more DMVs – many of them located in Democratic-leaning areas. In one case, Walker planned to close a DMV in Fort Atkinson, a liberal stronghold, while opening a new office 30 minutes away in the conservative district of Watertown.
Although new ID laws have been approved in seven states, the battle over such barriers to voting has been far more widespread. Since January, Democratic governors in Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina have all vetoed ID laws. Voters in Mississippi and Missouri are slated to consider ballot initiatives requiring voter IDs, and legislation is currently pending in Pennsylvania.
One of the most restrictive laws requiring voter IDs was passed in South Carolina. To obtain the free state ID now required to vote, the 178,000 South Carolinians who currently lack one must pay for a passport or a birth certificate. "It's the stepsister of the poll tax," says Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project. Under the new law, many elderly black residents – who were born at home in the segregated South and never had a birth certificate – must now go to family court to prove their identity. Given that obtaining fake birth certificates is one of the country's biggest sources of fraud, the new law may actually prompt some voters to illegally procure a birth certificate in order to legally vote – all in the name of combating voter fraud.
For those voters who manage to get a legitimate birth certificate, obtaining a voter ID from the DMV is likely to be hellishly time-consuming. A reporter for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Tennessee – another state now mandating voter IDs – recently waited for four hours on a sweltering July day just to see a DMV clerk. The paper found that the longest lines occur in urban precincts, a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act, which bars states from erecting hurdles to voting in minority jurisdictions.
Disenfranchising Ex-Felons The most sweeping tactic in the GOP campaign against voting is simply to make it illegal for certain voters to cast ballots in any election. As the Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Crist restored the voting rights of 154,000 former prisoners who had been convicted of nonviolent crimes. But in March, after only 30 minutes of public debate, Gov. Rick Scott overturned his predecessor's decision, instantly disenfranchising 97,491 ex-felons and prohibiting another 1.1 million prisoners from being allowed to vote after serving their time.
"Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they've paid their price?" Bill Clinton asked during his speech in July. "Because most of them in Florida were African-Americans and Hispanics and would tend to vote for Democrats – that's why."
A similar reversal by a Republican governor recently took place in Iowa, where Gov. Terry Branstad overturned his predecessor's decision to restore voting rights to 100,000 ex-felons. The move threatens to return Iowa to the recent past, when more than five percent of all residents were denied the right to vote – including a third of the state's black residents. In addition, Florida and Iowa join Kentucky and Virginia as the only states that require all former felons to apply for the right to vote after finishing their prison sentences.
In response to the GOP campaign, voting-rights advocates are scrambling to blunt the impact of the new barriers to voting. The ACLU and other groups are challenging the new laws in court, and congressional Democrats have asked the Justice Department to use its authority to block or modify any of the measures that discriminate against minority voters. "The Justice Department should be much more aggressive in areas covered by the Voting Rights Act," says Rep. Lewis.
But beyond waging battles at the state and federal level, voting-rights advocates must figure out how to reframe the broader debate. The real problem in American elections is not the myth of voter fraud, but how few people actually participate. Even in 2008, which saw the highest voter turnout in four decades, fewer than two-thirds of eligible voters went to the polls. And according to a study by MIT, 9 million voters were denied an opportunity to cast ballots that year because of problems with their voter registration (13 percent), long lines at the polls (11 percent), uncertainty about the location of their polling place (nine percent) or lack of proper ID (seven percent).
Come Election Day 2012, such problems will only be exacerbated by the flood of new laws implemented by Republicans. Instead of a single fiasco in Florida, experts warn, there could be chaos in a dozen states as voters find themselves barred from the polls. "Our democracy is supposed to be a government by, of and for the people," says Browne-Dianis. "It doesn't matter how much money you have, what race you are or where you live in the country – we all get to have the same amount of power by going into the voting booth on Election Day. But those who passed these laws believe that only some people should participate. The restrictions undermine democracy by cutting off the voices of the people."
This story is from the September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Posted by Brent Fullard at 8:45 AM