Yesterday was a day of reckoning, or the start of a reckoning in the U.S. Senate for the many election season mishaps of 2012. Elections administrators gathered for "The State of the Right to Vote After the 2012 Election" hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary to unpack some of the shenanigans from last month. Testimony was divided along partisan lines, with Republicans defending "election integrity" measures such as photo voter ID laws, early voting hours reductions, voter registration restrictions and mandating proof of citizenship for new voters. Meanwhile, Democrats castigated such measures as frivolous and built upon false pretenses of voter fraud.
Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy opened the hearing testifying that since earlier in the year he was worried that some states were erecting barriers to voting and that November’s election confirmed "that we were right to be concerned," citing the long lines and mass voter confusion reported around the nation. Ranking member of the committee Sen. Chuck Grassley went the opposite way, saying that people have been tossing around terms like "voter suppression" and "disenfranchisement" too "cavalierly" and that voter fraud — the pretense for the wave of new voter laws — is "a fact of life and it will get worse."
It should be noted that the term "disenfranchisement" has been used not just by voting rights advocates, but also by a state judge. In Pennsylvania, Judge Robert Simpson, who has no liberal reputation, found that his state’s photo voter ID law did qualify as disenfranchisement if just one voter would be denied the franchise because they didn’t have proper ID. In terms of voter suppression, it’s been quite noted among academics that photo voter ID laws and reduced early voting hours have a suppressive effect mainly on Democrat voters, and that they also help swing elections to Republicans. But speaking of cavalier use of the term, Sen. Grassley needed only to hear from his fellow Republican Matt Schultz, Iowa’s Secretary of State, one of five witnesses at the hearing, who testified, "Some believe their votes do not matter and that belief is a true cause of voter suppression across this country."
There’s some truth to that, but the way Schultz states it, it absolves him and his peers of any agency in the matter. People don’t just wake up disillusioned with voting. There are policies that restrict people’s access to the vote that makes people feel like their vote doesn’t matter. Election officials like Schultz, the ultimate supervisor of all election activities in Iowa, are responsible for those policies.
Schultz testified that people who complain of voter suppression "offer no evidence to support their claims," and that voter ID laws "have actually led to an increase in voter participation." His proof of this increase, according to the footnotes of his written statement, is an article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which explored the voter ID situation in Georgia, not Iowa. In fact, Iowa doesn’t even have a voter ID law, but Schultz seemed to be hedging at what he hoped for his state’s future.
There is no correlation between states with voter ID laws and increases in voter turnout, a myth often peddled by Heritage Foundation blogger Hans von Spakovsky. Georgia’s voter ID law is broad and expansive enough (the state mails a free voter ID to every voter) that there are few hoops to jump through, and has no resemblance to much more restrictive voter ID laws like the one courts blocked in Texas.
It’s also disingenuous to offer up that voters turned out despite onerous laws as proof of a net-positive impact. If a law was passed saying voters had to walk barefoot on hot desert sands to vote, and millions turned out anyway, that wouldn’t erase the fact that the law is painfully punitive. And yet a state senator from Florida once suggested exactly that for voters.
Florida had a starring role in the hearing, given its infamy in election practices dating back to at least the 2000 Bush-Gore election. This year, the nation watched on TV as the voters in Miami who waited as long as eight hours in line to vote, while reports of robo-calls and voter misinformation, and misdirection, sprung from across the Sunshine State (Florida was far from alone on those fronts. Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio also fielded such reports also). Testifying from Florida was Sen. Bill Nelson and former governor Charlie Crist.
Sen. Nelson came armed with a deposition from a GOP consultant named "Bucky" Mitchell who authored drafts of HB 1355, the legislation responsible for reduced early voting and curtailed voter registration activity that many election officials fault for the long lines and confusion. In that deposition, Mitchell confessed that a lot of the voting impediments in HB 1355 were unnecessary, but the Republican party leaders he was consulting for insisted putting them in there.
"Those who asked for the voting restrictions in Florida – including reduced early voting," said Nelson, "held jobs with the sole aim of electing Republican lawmakers."
Nelson also linked the activities to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch Brothers-funded organization that circulated model voter ID bills among the states. ALEC, which is normally not mentioned in government circles given their ties to corporations, was mentioned four different times in the hearing, including from Charlie Crist. As governor from 2007 to 2011, Crist put in place a number of reforms that helped expand the vote for the general electorate and for those disqualified to vote due to felonies. His successor Rick Scott rolled back most of those reforms with the help of the Tea Party.
"Florida, which four years earlier was a model for efficiency," said Crist, "became once again a late night TV joke."
Florida took weeks to certify many of its elections — the congressional race involving Rep. Allen West was resolved weeks after Election Day, and in some minds, it’s still not resolved. It wasn’t the only state with extremely late returns. Arizona suffered the same, and its Secretary of State Ken Bennett testified that the hold up was due to ballots compromised because a "voter spilled something on" it or they used "crayon, glitter ink or other methods" to fill out their ballot.
Our Voting Rights Watch comrade Aura Bogado has been reporting out of Arizona recently and she has a different explanation. Says Bogado, "Arizona hasn’t helped improve the system of voting–it’s made it more difficult to vote through the implementation of voter ID, proof of citizenship requirements, lack of language assistance, and poorly trained poll workers who denied voters their right to cast a ballot."