|On Tuesday, Mississippi voters will decide whether to adopt a new voter identification law [EPA]
As the 2012 presidential election approaches, expect to hear candidates bicker about the traditional hot-button issues in US politics: abortion, global warming, same-sex marriage, and taxes, among others.
But, for the first time in decades, voting laws could also become a major issue in the upcoming elections. So far in 2011, 14 states have passed laws tightening voting requirements, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. Some of these laws end early voting programmes, make it more difficult to register to vote, and require voters to present government-issued photo ID at the polls.
Unlike in many European countries, the United States does not have a national identification system, and some Americans - often the elderly, racial minorities, and low-income voters - lack driver’s licences or other forms of photo ID.
Currently, 14 states require voters to show photo ID before voting. In 16 other states, voters can present a non-photo form of identification, such as a bank statement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Many Republicans favour more stringent voting laws, arguing that voter fraud - or the potential for it - is a real problem in the US. This summer, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain charged that civil rights groups who oppose stricter laws are trying to “protect the voter fraud that they know is going on”.
Others counter that stricter voting laws are designed to suppress turnout among demographic groups who tend to vote for Democrats. In October, a New York Times editorial wrote, “The only reason Republicans are passing these laws is to give themselves a political edge by suppressing Democratic votes”.
On Tuesday, November 8, two states will vote on voting laws. Maine will decide whether or not to allow citizens to register to vote on Election Day, a law the state’s Republican-led congress had done away with earlier this year. And voters in Mississippi will choose whether to require citizens to present government-issued photo ID in order to vote.
'Directly to the folks'
Joey Fillingane, a Mississippi state senator, told Al Jazeera that he co-sponsored the voter ID initiative “to ensure that people, when they go to vote, are actually the people they claim to be”. Similar bills had repeatedly failed to pass the state legislature. So Fillingane gave up, deciding that, “it was time to take this directly to the folks”.
According to Fillingane, there have been “quite a number of documented cases” of voter fraud in Mississippi.
Mississippi has seen scattered incidents of voter fraud in recent years. In April 2011, a woman named Lessadolla Sowers was found guilty of 10 counts of voter fraud, after she submitted several absentee ballots in the names of deceased people in 2007. She is currently serving a five-year jail term.
Post-election reports filed by Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann (who, with Fillingane, is a co-sponsor of the voter ID initiative) mention several other incidents involving absentee ballots, which are supposed to be mailed in to election authorities by voters who are unable to come to the polls in person on Election Day. According to Mississippi's 2009 post-election report, “the majority of voter fraud allegations centred around absentee ballots”.
Richard Burke, executive director of the Libertarian Party of Mississippi, opposes the initiative because he says a photo ID law would not prevent absentee ballot fraud. “It just didn’t seem very cost-effective to me. Most of the problems we see in Mississippi come in through mail-in ballots.”
The goal of ID laws is to protect against in-person voter impersonation, a type of fraud that Hosemann’s post-election reports find to be rare. The 2008 post-election report did cite two instances in which voters cast more than one ballot on Election Day. The report stressed that “the occurrence of any voter fraud is unacceptable and damages the integrity of our system”, but admitted that, “these instances do not appear to be widespread”.
“It seems like we’re looking for a solution to a problem that’s not that bad,” said Burke.
Given Mississippi's history of disenfranchising voters - not until the 1960s were African-Americans allowed to vote - some black Mississippians are sceptical of the voter ID initiative, which they see as a possible attempt to keep black voters at home on Election Day. In an op-ed, Reverend Edward Hightower, a black Baptist minister, wrote, “It should be easy to see why we have such a deep rooted suspicion” of the measure.
If the initiative were approved by a majority of voters, Mississippians without government-issued photo identification would be able to obtain free voter ID cards if they provide a birth certificate or other record bearing their name.
Overturning the ban
The state of Maine - socially liberal and racially homogenous - lies in stark contrast to Mississippi.
Yet voting battles have reached Maine as well. This June, the state’s Republican-led congress passed a bill ending Election Day registration (EDR), under which citizens could both register to vote and then cast their ballot at the same time. On Tuesday, Maine citizens will vote on Question 1, an initiative that would reinstate EDR if a majority of voters approve it.
Maine consistently has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country. More than 70 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2008 - including about 50,000 people who had registered on Election Day. Of the five states with the highest turnout that year, four of them - Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin - allowed EDR.
In Maine, as in Mississippi, the case against EDR revolves around fear of voter fraud. Jen Webber, communications director for the anti-EDR campaign No on Question 1, told Al Jazeera that Maine has “one of the most unsecure voter registration systems in the country”. Webber pointed out that, according to a report issued by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, there were more registered voters than voting-age citizens in Maine in three of the last ten general elections - creating opportunities for skullduggery.
Ann Luther, of the League of Women Voters of Maine, disagrees that voter fraud is an issue. In Maine, said Luther, “there have been two cases of a person voting in two precincts in the same election in the last 30 years, that we know of … The problem that we’re seeing right now is this measure to suppress the vote,” said Luther, not voter fraud. The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organisation, led the effort to put Question 1 on the ballot this year.
According to Luther, the voters who use EDR tend to be less affluent, including “people who rent [their homes], people who are mobile for their jobs … people who are working two jobs, people who are struggling with young families”.
Lower-income voters tend to vote Democratic. Exit polls taken after the 2008 elections showed that 60 per cent of those making less than $50,000 a year voted for Barack Obama.
Webber, however, dismisses concerns that EDR is necessary. “Even with eliminating Election Day registration,” she said, “there are 247 [other] days people have to register to vote”.
'Turning everything to the left'
Earlier this year, Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers launched an investigation into whether college students from out-of-state were committing voter fraud. A report he commissioned, released in September, found no fraud.
However, the report did discover that 77 students were simultaneously registered to vote in two different states between 2008 and 2010 - and that six non-citizens were listed on Maine’s voter rolls. Summers believes that his findings bolster the case against EDR, claiming that the system overburdens election clerks, thus leading to flawed voter registrations.
Although Maine’s Republican Party led the drive to end same-day registration, not all Maine Republicans agree with that stance. Robert Flores, co-chair of the Bowdoin College Republicans, supports a reinstatement of EDR. He speculates that state Republicans voted to end EDR because out-of-state college students registered to vote in Maine were “turning everything pretty to the left”.
Although Flores votes in his home state of Texas, he said he believes that “it’s imperative for students who will make their lives in Maine to have the right to vote in Maine”. He became a supporter of EDR after the Morning Sentinel, a Waterville, Maine-based newspaper, reported that Maine Governor Paul LePage, two state senators, and seven state congressmen - all of whom had voted to end EDR - had themselves registered to vote on Election Day in the past.
Many citizens will not be affected by new voting laws. But the razor-thin victories in many recent US elections mean that new laws could easily tip the balance in a close race. For the past decade, many states have been almost evenly divided between Democratic and Republican voters. In the disputed 2000 election, George W Bush won just 537 more votes than Al Gore in Florida, vaulting Bush into the White House after an acrimonious battle in the Supreme Court. In 2004, Christine Gregoire was elected governor of Washington State by just 133 votes. Former Saturday Night Live comic Al Franken edged out a Senate opponent in 2008 by a margin of 312. That same year in Missouri, McCain nicked Obama by a minuscule 0.14 per cent margin.
To date, most new voting laws have been enacted by state legislatures, not by ordinary citizens. Although Maine and Mississippi may not necessarily be representative of the country at large, Tuesday's results could provide a rough gauge of how popular such voting laws are.