OP-ED: Keeping us safe from mythic illegal voters
In the 28 months since the Supreme Court decided a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was no longer necessary, several states have confirmed critics' warnings that the decision would prompt new efforts to curb voting, especially by minorities the law sought to protect.
In Texas, officials put a strict voter ID law into effect the very day the court ruled. It remains under legal challenge after an appeals court ruling it discriminates against minorities. In North Carolina, a new law reduced early voting and eliminated a program encouraging 18-year-olds to register.
But a ham-handed move by Alabama officials recently made the case better than can all the lawyers in the world.
Citing budgetary reasons, they closed 31 motor vehicles offices, the main place to obtain the drivers' licenses used as voter IDs, including those in every county where blacks comprise more than 75 percent of registered voters. The action sparked such a backlash, Gov. Robert Bentley backtracked — though minimally — by reopening the offices one day a month.
Texas, North Carolina and Alabama are not alone. Since 2011, 21 states have tightened voting restrictions, all but one with Republican governors or legislators. They include nine of the 11 Southern states, where increased minority voting in 2008 and 2012 either helped Barack Obama win the presidency or increased Democratic chances in states that had been voting Republican.
Other states have taken different steps to change voting procedures. Oregon and California, which vote mainly Democratic, made it easier for unregistered voters to vote by adopting laws that automatically register citizens when they get or renew their driver's licenses or state identification cards.
This difference underscores the degree to which voting laws have become a partisan issue, in contrast to the bipartisan majorities that initially passed the Voting Rights Act and supported its renewal as recently as 2006. It will be a major difference between next year's presidential nominees.
Republicans are trying to make voting harder, establishing tests beyond citizenship and residence that would reduce participation by minorities and younger voters more likely to vote Democratic. Their motivation, they say, is to prevent voter fraud, despite minimal evidence it's a problem.
And GOP lawmakers — backed by the party's presidential candidates — have refused to join Democrats in supporting efforts to restore the Justice Department's authority with updated criteria to review in advance proposed voting law changes in states with a history of discrimination. That's the provision the Supreme Court invalidated.
So far, GOP efforts are succeeding. A study by four liberal-leaning groups showed voter turnout dropped between 2010 and 2014 in four of five Southern states, "likely due, at least in part, to these laws making it harder to vote in 2014."
In North Carolina, where several restrictions took effect in 2014, exit polls showed the ratio of white voters to black voters was 74-21, compared with 70-23 in 2012, a small but significant shift in a closely contested state.
Democrats, meanwhile, want to encourage larger turnouts, at least partially because they think that will mean increased voting by Democratic-leaning groups, such as younger voters and minorities.
But voting should not be a partisan issue. After all, what is a more basic aspect of democracy than encouraging the greatest possible participation by its citizens?
Unsurprisingly, much of the restrictive effort is in the South, where a history of limiting voting on racial grounds was why many states there were singled out by the 1965 law's requirement for Justice Department pre-clearance of voting law changes. As a young reporter in New Orleans before its enactment, I covered many federal court suits against white local voter registrars who had used various means to discourage blacks from voting.
And in Texas, it took a landmark Supreme Court case a generation earlier to end the white-only Democratic primary.
Meanwhile, advocates of stricter voting standards keep looking for examples of voter fraud.
In Kansas, Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach told Congress the problem of illegal voting by illegal immigrants and other non-citizens "is a massive one nationwide" that he has "seen firsthand in Kansas." Last week he filed criminal charges against three people accused of voting both there and in a neighboring state.
All three were elderly Republicans — and citizens.
— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may email him at email@example.com.