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Vol. 20 No. 9 — November 2012
Stop the Vote: Voting Rights in the 2012 Election
by Irene E. McDermott, Reference Librarian/Systems Manager, Crowell Public Library, City of San Marino

“I've seen this before. I've lived this before,” declared Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., from the podium at the Democratic National Convention in early September. “Too many people struggled, suffered, and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.”

As one of the original Freedom Riders, Lewis experienced a turbulent time in American history. In 1961, a mob beat him for trying to enter a bus waiting room that had previously been designated for white people only. He was beaten unconscious again during the “Bloody Sunday” attack on the peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965.

While on the podium, Lewis described some of the obstacles placed in the way of black voters in southern states during that time period. “They had to pass a so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. On another occasion, one was asked to count the jelly beans in a jar — all to keep them from casting their ballots.”

Having experienced voter discrimination firsthand, Lewis, who represents Georgia's 5th congressional district, is appalled by the new movement that restricts access to the polls in some states. “Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting. They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours, and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote.”

Republican, Democrat, or independent, all Americans must feel concern at any American’s disenfranchisement.

United States Voting History

Voting restrictions are not new. Indeed, when the United States was founded, only land-owning white men were allowed to vote. Many of the founding fathers wanted to restrict the essential duty of deciding important issues for the new republic to its elites: educated men with property and wealth.

Because it was so contentious, the U.S. Constitution, in Article I, Section 4, left the allocation of voting rights largely to the states, not the federal government. By 1830, most state voting laws had changed to give nearly all white male citizens suffrage regardless of whether they owned property.

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified after the Civil War, granted all male citizens past the age of 21 the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This was in spite of western states’ objections that it would allow suffrage for naturalized Irish and Chinese men as well as African-Americans. But by 1890, Reconstruction had ended and former Confederate states set up barriers, including literacy tests, poll taxes, and physical intimidation and murder, to prevent black men from exercising their right to vote. These “Jim Crow” laws, which effectively kept blacks from the polls as well as segregating them as second-class citizens in most activities of daily life, remained in place for nearly a century.

After a century of struggle, women won the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act finally granted enfranchisement to Native Americans.

Yet, some states continued to circumvent federal voting laws, effectively preventing both Native Americans and African-Americans from casting ballots. Starting in the mid-1950s, the civil rights movement began nonviolent protests against the segregation of blacks in the South. Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Freedom Riders, among others, pushed back against the discrimination that had held sway for generations. Their peaceful gatherings were often met with violence. “Police turned water hoses on child marchers, homes and churches were firebombed and some protesters — white as well as black — were murdered” (“Voting Rights,” M. H. Cooper, CQ Researcher, 14, Oct. 29, 2004, 901–924 []). In the early 1960s, these attacks were televised, which helped to turn American sentiment against segregation and voter discrimination.

As a consequence, the 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, made it illegal to charge a poll tax in federal elections. Still, some states continued to demand the fee for state and local contests. The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed the relationship between the federal government and the states with a history of discrimination, giving the United States Attorney General the right to stop poll taxes in local and state elections and requiring these jurisdictions to pre-clear any future voting changes with the Attorney General or District Court for the District of Columbia. These states, and even some specific counties and cities, are still under the authority of Section V of the Voting Rights Act today. These states include Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas as well as parts of Florida and even Michigan and California. The complete list is on the Department of Justice website [].

In 1971, the 26th Amendment gave the right to vote to any American citizen 18 years or older.

The Modern Voter Suppression Movement

In 1973, in response to what they viewed as President Richard Nixon’s bias toward “big government,” conservative legislators, led by activist Paul M. Weyrich, formed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) [] as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) think tank to promote business-friendly laws on a state level. ALEC would convene state legislators, advocacy groups, and businesses to craft template “model legislation” for use throughout the country.

ALEC has been described as “the collaboration between multinational corporations and conservative state legislators" (“The Koch Brothers, ALEC and the Savage Assault on Democracy,” John Nichols, The Nation, Dec. 9, 2011 []; retrieved Sept. 9, 2012). It is primarily supported by donations from corporations, which, because of ALEC’s charity status, can claim these contributions as tax deductions.

Since its inception, ALEC has crafted and promoted a variety of legislation that ranges from harsh anti-immigration laws; efforts to privatize social security, Medicare, schools, and prisons; caps to worker rights and pay; the throttling of broadband internet access; the promotion of “Stand Your Ground” gun laws; and measures that reduce voter access to the polls.

The advocacy of these bills in states across the nation seems to fit the definition of lobbying, which would nullify ALEC’s tax-exempt status. Yet, although ALEC agrees that its activities do fit some states’ legal definitions of lobbying, it insists that the organization itself does not engage in the practice.

Bob Edgar, president of the watchdog group Common Cause [], disagrees. “We know its mission is to bring together corporations and state legislators to draft profit-driven, anti-public-interest legislation, and then help those elected officials pass the bills in statehouses from coast to coast. If that’s not lobbying, what is?” (“Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist,” Mike Mcintire, The New York Times, April 22, 2012: A1(L) []; retrieved Sept. 10, 2012).

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The Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine publish the secret documents of ALEC.
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ALEC Exposed

Another consequence of ALEC’s nonprofit status is that it does not have to reveal its donors nor its members. In 2011, Common Cause, citing the Freedom of Information Act, obtained records of state legislators who are members of ALEC. At the same time, more than 800 pieces of ALEC’s “model legislation” were leaked. In addition to the drafts of laws, the documents revealed that ALEC pays the travel expenses of public officials to attend its “educational” conferences and provides free support materials to help get its bills passed. The Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine joined forces to distribute information about ALEC’s secretive activities on this wiki. Explore ALEC’s work to thwart voter rights on this page:,_Voter_Rights,_and_Federal_Power.

Pressure from voter advocate groups caused ALEC to officially abandon its “task force” for voter restriction in April 2012. However, that cause was immediately taken up by another conservative think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research, which subsequently announced its Voter Identification Task Force [].

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States. The 2010 election saw a wave of conservatives elected to Congress as well as to state offices. These new statesmen expressed the concern that “voter fraud” committed by illegal immigrants was skewing election results. Subsequently, 37 states introduced strict new laws demanding that voters prove their identity and/or citizenship before casting a ballot. These laws eerily mirrored the model put forth by ALEC in its leaked documents. Ten states enacted the laws, including Texas and South Carolina, two states that still fall under the purview of Section V of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Modern voting restriction techniques include requiring proof of citizenship at registration and identification cards at the point of voting, which are often very specific documents that can be difficult for some people to obtain. In addition, poll hours have been shortened in many areas, making it harder to cast a ballot in person. Because these techniques effectively disenfranchise many of the out-of-state college students, the elderly and frail, minorities, and the new voter, these voter ID laws have been compared to Jim Crow regulations.

Gabriel Sanchez, associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, notes that obtaining an identification card becomes a barrier, a kind of “cost” of voting. “One consistent finding in political science literature is that whenever you increase the costs of voter participation, participation goes down, particularly among vulnerable segments of the population.”

He notes that the tangible benefits of voting are miniscule, particularly for those who feel marginalized in society. “Any time you tweak the costs for folks that aren't mobilized to a great extent to begin with, you're going to impact turnout” (“Voter Rights,” P. Katel, CQ Researcher, May 18, 2012, 22, 449-476 []).

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The National Council of State Legislators offers an interactive map of voter ID laws.
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Supporters of voter ID laws say that their purpose is to preserve “integrity in voting,” that is, they wish to thwart voter fraud. Yet, in July of this year, when the state of Pennsylvania defended its new voter ID laws to the federal Justice Department, it conceded that the state “will not offer any evidence in this action that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania and elsewhere,” nor will it "offer argument or evidence that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absence of the Photo ID law.” In other words, there was no evidence of voter fraud in Pennsylvania []. Indeed, in June, Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in the Pennsylvania state senate, crowed about the political nature of voter suppression in his state when he bragged, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the State of Pennsylvania: Done” [].

Voter Identification Requirements

The bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) maintains this interactive map and chart of the changing voter identification laws across the states. Thirty-three states have passed laws mandating voter ID at the polls; only 31 of those laws are in place for the November 2012 election. Mississippi’s law awaits preclearance under Section V of the Voting Rights Act. Wisconsin’s law was declared unconstitutional by a state court. Some states have “strict” photo ID requirements, meaning that only certain identification documents will be accepted; others are more lenient.

2012 Summary of Voting Law Changes

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University of Law keeps abreast of rapidly changing voting laws. In the last 2 years, “17 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election,” the Center points out. “These states account for 218 electoral votes, or nearly 80 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.”

Voter Tools

Given that so many states have taken up ALEC’s call to restrict voting for the unaware, what can be done to preserve the rights of vulnerable citizens? First of all, it is important for all eligible people to register to vote. If there are about 230 million people in the U.S. who are older than age 18 and eligible to vote and about 137.5 million of them have not registered, it means that about 40% of U.S. citizens who could vote have not signed up to do so. In the face of this statistic, the quibble over voter fraud and voter ID laws seems trivial. In the words of Jorge Borges, “It’s a fight between two bald men over a comb” (“Partisan Rifts Hinder Efforts to Improve U.S. Voting System,” Ethan Bronner, TheNew York Times, Aug. 1, 2012: A11(L). []; retrieved Sept. 13, 2012).

Help your fellow citizens to register and vote with these websites.


HeadCount works to register new voters at rock concerts, community events, and online. It works with bands to create video PSAs and also uses social networking and radio to spread the voter registration message.

The League of Young Voters Education Fund (LYVEF) works to get young people energized to register and vote, especially in noncollegiate “low-income communities and communities of color.” LYVEF notes, “In light of the stringent Voter ID requirements passed in many states, the League has built campaigns to get young people the IDs that they will need in order to vote in 2012.”

Rock the Vote

“The Millennial Generation is diverse and huge in number, making up nearly 1/4 of the entire electorate in 2012.” And yet, a substantial number of them are not registered to vote. These young people can start that process through this site and also volunteer to help others register.

This Is My Vote

The NAACP [] urges everyone to register to vote through its site or by calling on the telephone: 1-866-MyVote1 (1-866-698-6831). Visit the site to find the latest news about voter suppression laws and also news about organized protests. Click on the interactive state map to find out about the registration and voting laws in your area [].

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Campus Vote Project tells college students living
out of their home state what they need to do
to cast a ballot.
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Campus Vote Project

College students living away from their home state face particular challenges in some states when they try to register to vote. In Florida, for example, all voters must present proof of permanent residence, which is difficult for out-of-state university students. The Campus Vote Project is a nonprofit organization that works “with students to remove barriers to voting on campuses across the country.” If you are an out-of-state college student, visit this site to see what you must do to make your vote count.

Vote from Abroad

Are you an American citizen living abroad? Visit this site to request an absentee ballot. Don’t be left out: Vote by mail!

Election Protection

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and others have joined together “to deploy the Election Protection Smartphone Application to provide all information and resources, in English and Spanish (branded “Ya Es Hora”), that voters need to fully participate in the 2012 elections.” Download this free Android app to register to vote, verify your registration, see the voting rules for your state, and get contact information to report a voting issue. (It does not appear that this app is available for iOS products.) Use this app to get voter ID information for your state, as well as voter registration and absentee voter information.

In the Name of Democracy

Although enacted supposedly to prevent fraud (which is almost nonexistent), voter ID laws appear to have a blatantly political motive, as most of the disenfranchised voters are assumed to be liberals. If there are irregularities in voter registration and balloting, these can be addressed by system reforms and technology. To keep vulnerable citizens from the polls violates a basic American right, one guaranteed in our Constitution.

As John Lewis put it at the Democratic National Convention, “My dear friends, your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”


What Does It Take to Get People to Vote?

Recently, the state of Florida, at considerable taxpayer expense, conducted a detailed audit of voter rolls to see if there had been in-person voter fraud in the past. “The right to vote is a sacred right,” said Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott in June, “We gotta make sure a U.S. citizen’s right to vote is not diluted.”

In fact, Florida’s dragnet did turn up one illegal voter, but not the illegal Latino immigrant it had anticipated. Instead, authorities caught and convicted an Austrian-born Canadian named Josef Sever, “who registered and voted in at least two presidential elections while masquerading as a citizen so he could also buy and ‘bear arms,’ that other right cherished by many Americans” (“Canadian the Only Illegal Alien Caught in U.S. Fake-Voter Dragnet,” Paul Koring, The Globe and Mail, Sept. 10, 2012 []).

In fact, it is difficult to get even legitimate eligible voters to cast ballots.

A Double Dip for Voting?

In The Wall Street Journal, Duke University psychologist Dan Ariely posits that the impetus for voting is so low that usually it requires a secondary motivation to get people to vote. “The best way to get people to vote is to get them to the voting place for another reason (free ice cream, for example) and then to make the extra effort needed to vote as minimal as possible.”

“For people to be motivated to vote,” Ariely writes, “They would need to care about the outcome of the election and the people whom they are voting for — and that is a very big challenge, indeed.”

Irene E. McDermott ( votes early and often from her home in Pasadena, Calif.

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