Eligibility rules bar millions of voters in US

By Peter Huck

When Dorothy Cooper applied for a free voter identity card in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she supplied a rent receipt, a copy of her lease, her birth certificate and her voter registration card to prove who she was.

Voter ID is mandatory to prevent fraud under a new state law passed by Republicans, despite scant evidence fraud exists.

But the 96-year-old, who was on the voting roll, left her marriage certificate behind. Cooper was denied the ID.

Wilola Lee in Pennsylvania has a similar story to tell. The 60-year-old has voted in most national elections since the 1970s, worked at her local Philadelphia polling station and is retired from the city's education department. She has a social security card and a state identity card.

But a new law, passed by a Republican-controlled legislature, says voters must use an ID card issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

To get one you need a birth certificate. Lee's was destroyed by fire. Efforts to get one from Georgia, her birthplace, have been frustrated for the past decade.

Both women fall into a category that opponents of stringent new voter ID rules say discriminates against the elderly, disabled, immigrants, minorities and students, a constituency that proved vital to Barack Obama's election in 2008.

An October 2011 report by the Brennan Centre for Justice, a liberal thinktank in New York, warns the new rules "may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election".

Litigation is intense, notably in swing states where small numbers of votes may be crucial in what many predict will be a close November 7 election between Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

"Going into the 2012 elections," the report cautions, "there will be millions of Americans who will find that since 2008, there are new barriers that can prevent them from voting." The centre estimated five million would be affected.

Since Republicans took control of many state legislatures in 2010 strict ID laws - then used by two states - have been adopted by 19 states. At least 42 bills are pending, a prospect critics fear is the biggest threat to voting rights in a century. Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Virginia, all swing states, have tough new voter ID laws.

The new rules create an often bewildering gauntlet of photo ID demands. Some states have dramatically curtailed early voting - crucial to Obama in 2008 - while Ohio and Florida have cut reforms that help re-enfranchised ex-convicts.

The Brennan Centre says in 10 states with new ID rules, 1.2 million blacks and 500,000 Latino voters live over 16km from the closest ID office, a burden for poor people without transport.

About 11 per cent of Americans - more than 21 million - have no government-approved ID. Pennsylvania says 750,000 registered voters are in this category. The University of Washington says 1.4 million. In 2008 the margin of victory for Obama in the state was 620,478.

Claims of partisanship were fuelled by a comment from Pennsylvania's Majority Leader, Republican Mike Turzai, after a law passed in June. "Voter ID. Which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania. Done."

This week a challenge to that law by the American Civil Liberties Union and other plaintiffs, who argued the state had erected "unconstitutional barriers to the fundamental right to vote", failed. "I just can't believe it," said the chief plaintiff, 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite. "Too many people have fought for the right to vote to have it taken away like this. All is I want is to be able to vote this November like I always have."

Even Pennsylvania admits it knows of no state fraud; a US Justice Department study of 300 million votes cast from 2000 and 2007 found just 86 fraud convictions.

And then there's the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Set up in 1973 by conservative activists, and partly bankrolled by Tea Party backers David and Charles Koch, ALEC is best known for devising legislative templates later adopted by Republicans. The Philadelphia Inquirer found over half of the 62 voter ID bills it analysed "were sponsored by members or conference attendees of the American Legislative Exchange Council".

"There has never been in my lifetime ... the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today," Bill Clinton said in July 2011. The reason, say critics, is simple: lower voter turnout invariably helps Republicans.

The epic confusion spawned by voter ID may prove some are more equal than others at the polling booth in November.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 23 Dec 2014 06:03:17 Processing Time: 547ms