Vote suppression tactics all too familiar

Paul Schurick's recent conviction for voter fraud is a sad coda to the 2010 Martin O'Malley-Bob Ehrlich gubernatorial rematch: Sad because Mr. Schurick tainted his reputation as one of the state's best political strategists, and sadder because Governor O'Malley almost certainly would have been re-elected no matter what late-campaign shenanigans Mr. Schurick pulled.

But the saddest thing about Schurick's conviction is that his actions are merely one small part of a larger and more systematic attempt by conservative strategists to find ways to suppress voter turnout in service to Republican partisan advantage. Unlike in the Schurick case, most such efforts are perfectly legal (though certainly unsavory).

Let's take a quick tour of the voter-suppression activities under way across the nation.

In the past year, 19 new laws and two executive orders were issued in 14 states to create stricter voter identification requirements. These measures were supported and passed largely by Republicans after gaining control of state legislatures and governors' offices in 2010. Their aim is to constrict the electorate for 2012 and beyond.

Voter-suppression efforts take one of two complementary forms: restricting ballot access by enacting new or stronger identification requirements for voters to register, and limiting the time window during which voters can register, such as eliminating same-day registration and voting.

In either form, ballot restrictions disproportionately disfranchise poorer and nonwhite voters, as well as senior citizens and college-age students. How do we know this? A report by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice showed that an estimated 11 percent of Americans lack a government-issued photo identification with a current, accurate address. But the shares of Americans in the groups mentioned above who lack an ID are higher.

Younger, poorer and nonwhite voters lean overwhelmingly Democratic, of course. And although Republicans generally fare well among seniors — they were the only age cohort John McCain carried over Barack Obama in 2008 — many of the seniors lacking proper identification are poor, urban minorities also unlikely to support the GOP.

One need not summon Sherlock Holmes to explain why Republicans, losers of the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections, have a greater vested interest in ballot restriction measures: Constricting the electorate improves their electoral fortunes. Like gerrymandering, voter identification is an attempt by strategic politicians to pick their voters, rather than the other way around. In effect, Republicans are admitting they're not sure they can win elections by offering better policies or stronger leadership.

The key organization behind the voter identification movement is the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC and its defenders claim they are vigilant "small-d" democrats fighting the plague of voter fraud. When pressed to cite actual examples of ineligible persons voting illegally, however, they cite only a few, isolated cases of fraud. "Voter impersonation is an illusion," says Brennan Center executive director Michael Waldman.

The real problem here is passive registration by government. We actively register Americans as taxpayers or even potential soldiers: The government requires us to pay taxes via our Social Security numbers and, if male, to register for the selective service.

But when Americans turn 18, we also become voting-age citizens, automatically and by default. If our government automatically holds us to the responsibilities of citizenship, why aren't we automatically assigned our civil rights, too — including suffrage?

Some democracies require voter registration, and some even mandate voting. I'm not for government requiring people to vote — to abstain is to politically express oneself, too — but I do believe government should ensure that every age-eligible citizen is at least registered, and well in advance of election day, so there are few if any disputes when it comes time to vote.

America's low turnout rate (only about 55 percent or 60 percent of us turn out for presidential contests, and much fewer for other elections) is the product of two ratios. About 5 in 6 registered Americans vote, but only 4 in 6 eligible Americans are registered in the first place. The latter fraction is more troubling, which is why new restrictions on registration are undemocratic, un-American and unwise.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @schaller67.

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