The old truism remained true on voter ID Tuesday.
Namely, that if you give the people enough time, they usually will do the right thing.
It was truly amazing to watch Minnesotans reject the proposed state constitutional amendment that would have required eligible voters to obtain a state-issued photo identification card to cast their ballots. Especially amazing after polls a year ago showed 80 percent of the public favored the idea, including 60 percent of the Democrats, who apparently did not realize they would be committing political suicide if they voted for it.
Somehow, people began to get the idea that this was a bad idea because added cost and bureaucracy would make it harder for certain groups — seniors, people of color, the poor and the young, especially college students away from home — to get to the polls. This realization developed even though the public debate never quite focused on the truth of what this was all about. Namely that the push for voter ID in Minnesota was just one weapon in a long-term, well-organized national campaign by the Republican Party and their ultraconservative allies to depress Democratic votes by imposing new burdens on the groups mentioned, which together tend to vote Democratic and which demonstrated that fact Tuesday by serving as the core of President Barack Obama’s second-term victory.
The GOP has been at this with great fervor since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Indiana voter-ID law several years ago. Just during the last two years, voter-ID bills have been introduced by Republcans in as many as three dozen state legislatures, according to various nonprofit watchdog organizations. Ten or so have passed and become law. Fortunately, in response to opposition complaints, courts have invalidated some of them or at least laid them on the shelf for this election.
Republicans, including in Minnesota, have been very good at not spilling what they really are up to. They successfully framed he debate in terms of preventing voter fraud. To hear them talk, you would have thought this was something handed down from heaven, as if it were the 11th Commandment. Only once, in Pennsylvania, have they been known to mess up and tell the truth. There a Republican leader in the state legislature proudly announced that they had passed voter ID to help Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, win the White House — in other words, to make it more difficult for otherwise eligible Democratic voters to get to the polls. Fortunately, a judge delayed implementation of the law, and it was not in effect for Tuesday’s election. Obama easily carried Pennsylvania, with help of his core constituency.
Here in Minnesota, supporters of voter ID struggled but failed to make the case that voter fraud exists in this state. I have been associated either as a junior newspaper editor or as an election judge with the three major statewide election recounts in Minnesota’s more recent history — for governor in 1962, U.S. senator in 2008 and governor again in 2010. Never once in any of those extended contests was there any claim of fraud by either side. Not once.
Same deal over that period with recounts for elections for the legislature or local office. No voter fraud claims.
Other weapons in party’s voter-suppression arsenal
Voter ID is not the only weapon in the GOP voter suppression arsenal. Other examples from key states in Tuesday’s voting:
- In Ohio, Republican officials initially ordered that early voting be restricted in mostly black precincts in Cincinnati. Fortunately, the balance between black city precinicts and white usually GOP suburban precincts was redressed in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ohio, as we know, went for Obama.
- In Florida, the Republican-controlled state government embarked on a plan to purge noncitizens from its voter rolls, aiming particularly at black and Latino districts. The first time around, many citizens complained that they were improperly given arbitrary notices to prove their citizenship in limited time or be removed from the rolls. A lawsuit determined that many mistakes were made in the first round. Hundreds were restored to the polling lists. The purge continued with what the state claimed were more accurate databases that would avoid errors. But the targets remained the same. Florida maintained its tradition of being the last state in the nation to complete counting ballots.
- In some states, new Republican-sponsored laws impose tougher restrictions and greater penalties on groups that primarily focus on registering the poor and minorities to vote. The law in Florida is so harsh that even the League of Women Voters was scared off, temporarily suspending its registratiion efforts until a court intervened.
The power of word-of-mouth
In Minnesota a lot of money eventually was spent for and against voter ID. But I think word-of-mouth also had a lot to do with its resounding failure. I’ll give you just one example. A woman very close to me was meeting Monday, the day before the election, with a nurse in her doctor’s office. The woman asked if her malady would prevent her from serving as an election judge the next day. The nurse said she would be fine. But then the nurse asked what this voter ID thing was all about. She said she didn’t know whom to believe. After a brief discussion of the facts, the nurse indicated she would be voting no.
Now that the election is over, the secretary of state’s office is estimating that our 76 percent turnout may again be leading the nation. That is all well and good. But not good enough. Should we not be looking for ways to encourage even greater participation in elections, the root right of our country, rather than be looking for partisan ways to make it harder to cast a ballot?
Frank Wright is a former managing editor and foreign correspondent for the Star Tribune.
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