By Melanie Brkich
In 1870, African Americans won the right to vote, followed by women 50 years later. In 1971, the voting age went down from 21 to 18, a critical victory for young soldiers who fought and died in wars without any voice in the political establishment — not that they were smart enough to vote responsibly, according to a handful of politicians and conservative pundits.
“[Voting liberal is] what kids do. They don’t have life experience,” one legislator said about young voters. “They just vote with their feelings.” The legislator was New Hampshire Speaker William O’Brien (R), explaining the need for tighter voting restrictions to an assembly of Tea Party members in January.
In recent months, voter ID laws have provoked heated debates throughout the country. Republican lawmakers claim voter fraud is a pressing issue and that voter ID laws present a solution. Opponents tend to be women, minorities, college students and the poor — who are far more likely to be inconvenienced by voter ID laws and, coincidentally, more likely to vote Democrat.
In 2008, only Indiana and Georgia had voter ID requirements. At the start of 2011, both had adopted strict voter ID laws, followed more recently by Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. None of the most recent laws are in effect yet, but they will be by January 2012, before national elections.
There are currently three levels of voter ID law restrictions: non-photo, photo requested, and photo required. Florida’s laws fall under the middle category. A “current and valid” photo ID must be provided at the polls. For those without valid driver’s licenses (namely the elderly, the poor and students without cars), the restrictions are a hindrance. Luckily, alternative forms of ID are accepted, including a student ID with a photo and a signature. This works out fine for UF students, but the latest Santa Fe ID does not include the latter.
Is preventing voter fraud worth the inconvenience and potential deterrence to legitimate voters? The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law pointed out in 2006 that voter fraud is a “foolish way to attempt to win an election.” In exchange for just one extra vote, offenders risk thousands of dollars in fines and up to five years in prison. As a result, “fraud by individual voters is both irrational and extremely rare.”
In the 2008 election, for example, 2.9 million votes were cast in Wisconsin. Out of those votes, 18 were reported as cases of ID fraud (less than one thousandth of 1 percent). Other closely scrutinized elections in 2004 revealed similar ratios: 0.0009 percent in Washington State and 0.00004 percent in Ohio.
Comparatively, Campus Progress estimates that 15 percent of low-income voters, 18 percent of the youth (read: students), and 24 percent of black voters would lack the qualifications to vote in 2012 based on the requirements of current voter ID laws. Additionally, a majority of women change their names after marriage and may face further complications with paperwork when discrepancies arise from previously issued IDs.
Richard Scher, a professor of political science at UF and author of The Politics of Disenfranchisement, contends voter fraud is a partisan fabrication. He points out that there’s a difference between voter fraud and voting fraud. The former means to accidentally vote twice, while the latter classifies any ballot that must be thrown out for being marked incorrectly in some way. This means even the trivial number of cases marked in studies as “voter fraud” may be incorrectly classified.
“In the old days during the Emancipation up until 1865, the Democrats were trying to keep blacks from voting,” he said. “Everybody does it. Now it’s just Republicans’ turn.” As far as the new laws in Florida, Scher said he thinks Florida has gone as far as it can with a “back-door approach” because “no matter what your politics, people just aren’t going to buy it.”
Voter ID laws are not the only bureaucratic obstacle threatening inclusive participation in Florida’s elections. Erin Murphy, president of the College Democrats at UF, contends that third-party registration is the most important change in the state’s voting laws. Now, all third-party organizations, from College Democrats to the NAACP, have to register with the Florida Division of Elections to get approved for registering citizens. But that’s not all. Every registration has to be meticulously documented, the forms numbered, and any mistake results in a $50 fine per form.
Murphy had some experience with the issue as a legislative intern for Senator Nan Rich of Florida last spring. She helped file 18 amendments against House Bill 1355, which “requires that third-party voter registration organizations register with Division of Elections and provide division with certain information.” Though none of them passed, she said, “it did make a statement and at least delayed the process of passing.”
Third-party organizations have been a great convenience to those who aren’t able to get to specially designated locations for registration, especially college students who don’t have transportation or permanent addresses in Gainesville. Murphy said that of all those who registered with the help of College Democrats for the 2008 election, 90 percent came out to the polls.
She said College Democrats is currently registering people of any party at Turlington on Mondays and Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
So, what’s Murphy’s advice in these bleak times for would-be voters? “Register,” she said. “Just get it done.”
The following types of ID are accepted at the polls: Florida driver’s license, Florida ID card issued by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, United States passport, debit or credit card, military ID, student ID, retirement center ID, neighborhood association ID, public assistance ID
(Note: If your picture ID does not contain your signature, you’ll need additional identification with a signature.)
Top: Voter ID laws, state-by-state. Info graphic by Kelley Antoniazzi. Information courtesy of the Florida Divisions of Elections and the National Conference of State Legislatures. For complete state-by-state requirements, see NCSL’s website.
For the latest coverage of voter ID laws, see Campus Progress’ website.