Picture this, it could happen in Indiana, Texas or many other states in the US: An old couple in their eighties going to vote in November’s presidential election. Upon arriving at the polling station, the husband and his wife are told that state law requires them to bring a government photo identification such as a driver’s license or a passport. As they are not aware of this law, they have to use a temporary ballot. These provisional ballots are kept separate from the regular ballots. If the voter returns to election officials within a short period of time after the election (generally a few days) and presents acceptable ID, the provisional ballot is counted. If the voter does not come back to show ID that provisional ballot is never counted.
To vote in the United States, you must be at least 18 years old by the time of the general election and a US citizen. Some states prevent felons and mentally disabled individuals from voting. As more states put in place strict voter-ID rules, what seems like a mere bureaucratic procedural issue could be an important factor in November, as experts predict a very close race between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. More than two dozen states have some form of ID requirement, and eleven of those passed new rules over the past two years, largely at the urging of Republicans who say they want to prevent fraud.
Democrats and voting rights group say that ID laws could suppress votes among people who may not typically have a driver’s license or a passport and that these ID laws disproportionately affect the elderly, students, the poor and minorities – like Hispanics or African-Americans. Both are important ethnic groups loyal to the Democratic Party. No wonder that the Obama administration suspects Republican states like Texas may be deliberately trying to keep them and other minorities from voting.
Obama’s heavy weapon against new voter-ID laws is Attorney General Eric Holder. In a speech to the annual convention of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), America’s oldest civil rights group, in Houston this week, he vowed to be “aggressive” in challenging any voting laws that restrict minority rights. Holder said getting a government-issued photo ID as the law requires would be difficult for many minority voters. “Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them, and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them,” he said. According to Holder, recent studies show that 25% of voting age African-Americans in the United States do not possess a government-issued photo ID, while only 8% of voting age whites lack such identification.
The controversy over voting rights is playing out against a backdrop of a growing national debate over the issue. A three-judge panel of the US District Court in Washington is hearing arguments this entire week on the Texas voter-ID law, which requires voters to show photo identification before being allowed to cast their ballots. Holder’s Justice Department in March blocked the Texas law, which was signed by Governor Rick Perry back in March 2011, contending that it would violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act and disproportionately harm Hispanic voters. Texas is required under that Act to secure federal approval of changes in its voting procedures. The reason is that Texas historically has such a bad track record when it comes to voter discrimination.
In objecting to the Texas law, the Justice Department said it reviewed the state’s own statistics showing 600,000 registered voters lack a driver’s license or any other form of government identification. The state official representing Texas at the hearings cited Loving County in the western part of the state as an example of voter fraud. The county has a population of around 70 people, he said, but voter registration is 157% of that number. He also said that statewide, his office had identified at least 239 dead people listed as having voted in the past year.
Historically, Texas politicians have been quite creative when it comes to rigging an election. Most famous is the 1948 senate race that future president Lyndon B. Johnson won. Facing a tough Democratic primary he ended up being the winner by 87 votes. There were many allegations of fraud on both sides. Thus one writer alleges that Johnson’s campaign manager, future Texas governor John Connally, was connected with 202 ballots in Jim Wells County that had curiously been cast in alphabetical order and just at the close of polling, with all of the people whose names appeared on the ballots being dead on election day.