We applaud three recent rulings — two in Ohio and another in Texas — that helped expose laws passed by Republican lawmakers to be exactly what they were — opportunistic attempts to keep certain populations from exercising their right to cast a ballot, hence disenfranchising segments of the electorate during what promises to be a close election.
In Ohio, a federal judge ruled late last week that the state must honor its seven-year-old early voting law and allow in-person voting the weekend before the presidential election. The change would have shut down a weekend of early voting for everybody except military voters, which, the Obama administration argued, violated the Voting Rights Act and received for its interference the dubious claim that it was attempting to limit military members’ right to vote. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Peter C. Economus quoted from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 Bush v. Gore ruling against the establishment of two classes of voters and agreed with Democrats that the poor, elderly and minorities were those most likely to avail themselves of the opportunity to cast a ballot during the early-voting period. Ohio’s attorney general vowed to contest the ruling, noting one election cycle after a big win by Obama in 2008 that Ohio has always allowed a distinction for members of the military— the state is, after all, a key battleground state.
In a separate Ohio ruling that Republican Secretary of State John Husted indicated he ultimately would not appeal, a second federal judge tossed out another Ohio law that sought to restrict counting some provisional ballots — notably those filed in the wrong precincts and where election workers were at fault.
Meanwhile, in Texas, a three-judge panel ruled late last month that that state’s Voter ID law was also a violation of the Voting Rights Act. Its ruling rejected claims that minority voters were being targeted, but circumambulated that the law — called the most stringent in the nation — was a burden poor people, who were most likely to be poor, and would have to travel great distances to secure the required documentation.
While, both Texas and Ohio pushed back against voter suppression efforts, Pennsylvania’s voter ID law survived a court challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union, despite predictions that the number of people who stood to be disenfranchised was far greater than the number of cases of fraud the new law would prevent.
It’s the boogeyman of fraud Republicans use as justification for these new laws, despite overwhelming evidence that fraud is a minimal concern. In 2011, the Republican National Lawyers Association reported about 400 election fraud prosecutions in a decade. Meanwhile, according to the Christian Science Monitor, a study by the Pew Center on the States found poor record keeping to be the primary problem and one that wouldn’t be addressed by ID demands.
Defenders of these laws note that having a photo ID is part of everyday life and that having one to vote should be seen as no real imposition. But, let’s not kid ourselves. The efforts by voter identification supporters are nothing if not political gamesmanship coming in the wake of the success by Obama in bringing out young people and minorities in the 2008 contest. Since last year, eight states have approved photo ID laws. Would Republicans be pushing for these laws if the election didn’t promise to be a squeaker? We think not.
The G.O.P.’s tactics are misguided and the rulings in Ohio and Texas could do much to damage fence-sitting voters’ support (even though a majority of voters support voter ID laws), regrettable because the party’s message is compelling and worthy of attention — in times of ballooning budget deficits and expanding looming entitlement concerns, warnings on behalf of fiscal restraint and against governmental overreach will always deserve a fair hearing.