Mitt Romney was in Michigan this week trying to make it competitive in the presidential election. It’s a steep climb for the native Michigander because President Barack Obama’s auto bailout, which Romney opposed, has helped bring the state’s unemployment rate down by 5.7 points since 2009.
But Romney has a strong ally there: legislation being pushed this month by his fellow Republicans aimed at preventing the nonpartisan League of Women Voters from undertaking the voter-registration drives it has sponsored for nearly a century.
Across the country, the Republicans’ carefully orchestrated plan to make voting harder — let’s call it the Voter Suppression Project — may keep just enough young people and minorities from the polls that Republicans will soon be in charge of all three branches of the federal government.
Yes, both sides try to change voting laws to favor their team. The 1993 “motor voter” law that made voting more convenient by extending registration to the Department of Motor Vehicles helped mostly Democrats. That was at least in the long American tradition of expanding the franchise.
The Republican effort to restrict voting isn’t just anti-Democrat, it’s anti-democratic. No fair-minded person believes the tall tales of voters pretending they were someone else, which have been debunked by the Brennan Center for Justice and others. What fool would risk prison or deportation to cast a single vote?
This isn’t about stopping vote-stealing and other corruption, for which there are already plenty of laws on the books. It’s about rigging the system to keep power.
First we saw the efforts during the George W. Bush administration by Karl Rove and Justice Department officials to get rid of U.S. attorneys who refused to pursue bogus voter- fraud cases. When Republican prosecutors complained, Rove and company ran for cover.
Then came Crawford v. Marion County, the 2008 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory photo-identification laws were constitutional on the basis of ballot protection. The evidence presented included not a single case of in-person impersonation fraud — the only fraud that photo ID laws can prevent. And the millions of Americans — mostly less-affluent seniors — without driver’s licenses? Good luck.
The big Republican victory in the 2010 election was essential to the Voter Suppression Project. With the help of ALEC — a conservative lobbying outfit that spreads cookie-cutter bills to state legislatures — Republicans moved with lightning speed to implement their scheme. Since 2011, 18 states have enacted voter-suppression bills, with similar ones pending in 12 more.
In the presidential race, it’s hand-to-hand legal combat, with almost every battleground state embroiled in a struggle over voter eligibility.
Michigan’s bills attack the League of Women Voters by requiring some volunteers to attend state-approved training sessions before they can register voters. The catch is that the bill makes no provisions for such sessions. Ha! It does threaten them with penalties for registration offenses that aren’t specified.
The bill is modeled on Florida’s, parts of which a federal judge invalidated May 31 because he said they had “no purpose other than to discourage” constitutionally protected activity.
In Ohio, the Obama campaign helped collect enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot repealing restrictions on absentee voting. Preferring not to face the voters directly on voter suppression, the Republican-controlled legislature repealed its own law, although it left intact a related measure that prohibits early voting on the three days before an election. That’s designed to discourage the tradition in black communities of busing worshippers from church to the polling place.
Several battleground states have new photo-ID requirements. Pennsylvania’s law allows valid student ID, but with a number of restrictions. Same in Wisconsin, which attached a series of bring-me-the-witch’s-broomstick demands for students looking to use a school ID. Fortunately, a state judge ruled against the Wisconsin law, although it’s being appealed.
Virginia’s legislation allows multiple forms of photo ID but restricts registering for an absentee ballot in person. A New Hampshire bill that required those without photo ID to fill out an onerous affidavit was thankfully just vetoed by Governor John Lynch.
The Obama campaign is obviously concerned about these ballot-access issues for political reasons. But even those with no dog in this fight should recognize that a great democracy doesn’t sully itself by suppressing the precious right to vote.
Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.”