The war on voting is real. It’s happening now

Elections shouldn’t be decided by making it hard to vote, but that’s already happening. It will only get worse in November.

In some Democratic primaries, voting limits are most affecting the ballot access of seniors, students, people with disabilities and black and Latino citizens.

Voters wait in line to vote in the presidential primary in Glendale, Arizona, on March 22. Nancy Wiechec | Reuters

Voters wait in line to vote in the presidential primary in Glendale, Arizona, on March 22. Nancy Wiechec | Reuters

Arizona saw huge lines after Republican election officials cut the number of polling places, particularly in Latino neighborhoods. These officials used to be supervised under the Voting Rights Act, but the Supreme Court removed oversight in a 5-4 decision. If the high court had not, U.S. Justice Department lawyers could have required more voting sites, and there wouldn’t have been lines making people wait three to four hours to cast ballots.

Congress could pass a new Voting Rights Act that passed constitutional muster. It long had bipartisan support but Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner is now a rare champion from his party. Recently Sensenbrenner proclaimed in a New York Times OpEd, “Ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot without fear, deterrence and prejudice is a basic American right. I would rather lose my job than suppress votes to keep it.”

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, long waits can arise from cutting early voting. As Neil Albrecht, the executive director of the City of Milwaukee Election Commission, explained, “[T]he working poor, single parents, students, people with disabilities, or anyone else that might have an Election Day schedule conflict or concern about limited physical access to their voting site are among those who seek out the opportunity to vote early.”

Black voters in Wisconsin used to participate in voting drives organized by churches, or what’s called “Souls to Polls,” the weekend before the election. But the state got rid of early voting for that weekend and cut early voting to one place per municipality, even in big cities like Milwaukee.

A whopping 300,000 registered voters, 9 percent of the Wisconsin electorate, will be prevented from voting. A big problem is that the law has exceedingly strict rules for underlying documents needed to get the required photo ID. Getting those takes time and may be expensive or impossible.

Take 74-year-old Johnny Randle, an African-American from Mississippi who, after he fell ill, moved to Wisconsin to live with his daughter. He has been trying to get the ID Wisconsin requires since 2011. After being denied a waiver from the birth certificate requirement and then tracking one down to provide to the state, Randle was blocked again because the middle name on his birth certificate is “Marton” but he has used “Martin” through his lifetime. His only resort is to petition Social Security to change his name or to go through a costly court proceeding to have a legal name change.

Besides racial disparities in Wisconsin, as writer Ari Berman points out, “Student IDs from most public and private universities and colleges are not accepted because they don’t contain signatures or a two-year expiration date (compared to a ten-year expiration for driver’s licenses).”

Limiting both students, who prefer Sanders, and black and older voters, who prefer Clinton, it’s unclear how Wisconsin laws affect the primary.

But voter restrictions around the country, passed by Republicans though voting fraud was virtually nonexistent, will definitely benefit Republicans in the general election.

America has seen waves of efforts to limit voting. After former slaves and free black people gained the vote and elected people to represent their interests, Democratic Party politicians disenfranchised them. Black voting fell to near zero due to poll taxes, arbitrary literacy tests, intimidation, violence and laws preventing people from voting unless their grandfathers could do so.

Suffrage was widened after the Civil Rights Movement worked to reverse laws disenfranchising black people in the south. President Lyndon Johnson led, saying in a speech to Congress asking them to support the Voting Rights Act, “Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders.”

As Johnson lamented, “Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right.”

Today’s vote limits again demonstrate the importance of the Supreme Court. With one more justice who supports voting rights, those disenfranchised can get back their fundamental rights.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.