WASHINGTON — When you are a 96-year-old, law-abiding, conscientious American citizen, you ought to be able to exercise your right to vote easily and quickly. You shouldn’t have to provide an envelope full of documents proving your identity — only to be told that you still haven’t shown that you are eligible to cast a ballot.
Yet, that’s just what happened to Dorothy Cooper earlier this month, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Tennessee’s GOP-controlled legislature passed a strict voter ID law, so Cooper — who never learned to drive — got a ride to a state driver service center to obtain a new ID card.
But her rent receipt, her lease, her birth certificate and her voter registration card were not enough, the newspaper reported. Because her birth certificate pronounced her “Dorothy Alexander” — her maiden name — the clerk refused to give her the credential that would allow her to vote.
That story ought to simply be a laughable anecdote about an overzealous bureaucrat, an officious clerk who doesn’t understand the phrase “public servant.” Unfortunately, Cooper’s futile sojourn reflects an intentional Republican plan to restrict the franchise.
Across the country, GOP-controlled state legislatures have passed measures to make voting arduous for certain citizens who have shown a marked propensity for supporting Democrats. The new laws could make casting a ballot “significantly harder” for more than 5 million eligible voters, according to a new report by New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Republicans insist that they are only trying to prevent voter fraud, but that claim doesn’t hold up to cursory scrutiny. While many Americans believe the oft-repeated tale that the ballot box needs to be protected from fake voters, in-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent.
Think about it. Have you ever heard of a fake voter showing up on Election Day claiming to be someone else? Do teens get fake IDs so they can go to the polls?
Voter suppression has long been a useful tool for GOP operatives, who haven’t been entirely comfortable with the universal franchise. But that discomfort has blossomed into full-blown panic with the stark demographic changes evident in the 2010 Census. The GOP’s backward-looking and intolerant agenda hasn’t attracted many Black or brown voters, who make up a growing share of the electorate.
Instead of finding policies that appeal to voters of color, Republicans have turned to dirty tricks: Trying to block a few million voters who are poor or elderly or young — all groups that heavily supported President Obama in 2008.
The Brennan Center estimates that 11 percent of eligible voters don’t have state-issued photo IDs, and a disproportionate number of them are Black or Latino citizens. Some are elderly, like Cooper, and have never had need of a driver’s license.
Beyond the odious voter ID laws are a range of other obstacles that lack even a tenuous connection to voter fraud. Consider the handful of states, including Georgia, where GOP legislatures determined that early voting was too convenient — for Democrats.
Country-club Republicans have long sniffed at procedures that allowed the unwashed masses easy access to registration and voting. They prefer a single workday — Tuesday — because it was inconvenient for clock-punchers. But as recently as October 2008, Georgia’s Republican elections official — then-Secretary of State Karen Handel — bragged about procedures to allow Georgians to “vote early starting this week at their county registrar’s office with no excuse needed.”
But something unexpected happened later that month: While GOP presidential nominee John McCain won Georgia, a huge wave of Black voters took advantage of early voting. That was enough to persuade the GOP-controlled Legislature that early voting was a bad idea.
Still not persuaded that these GOP measures are illegitimate? Then consider those states that have aimed their sights at college students, who had the gall to favor Obama in 2008. Four states have explicitly or implicitly allowed college-issued student IDs.
In New Hampshire, a Republican legislator was caught on tape telling a tea party audience that college students shouldn’t be allowed to vote in his state because they are “doing what I did when I was a kid. Voting as a liberal.” (Happily, his unconstitutional proposal failed.)
As for Mrs. Cooper, she told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she would give up on an ID card and cast her vote using an absentee ballot. Good for her. But there will be millions of others who won’t have the opportunity to choose alternatives quickly enough to cast a ballot in 2008.
That’s just what the Grand Old Party is counting on.
Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.