The US Supreme Court has just dealt a serious blow to voters' rights that could help put John McCain in the White House by eliminating tens of thousands of voters who generally vote Democratic.
By 6-3 the Court has upheld an Indiana law that requires citizens to present a photo identification card in order to vote. Florida, Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia, Hawaii and South Dakota have similar laws. Though it's unlikely, as many as two dozen other states could add them by election day. Other states, like Ohio, have less stringent ID requirements than Indiana's, but still have certain restrictions that are strongly opposed by voter rights advocates.
The decision turns back two centuries of jurisprudence that has accepted a registered voter's signature as sufficient identification for casting a ballot. By matching that signature against one given at registration, and with harsh penalties for ballot stuffing, the Justices confirmed in their lead opinion that there is "no evidence" for the kind of widespread voter fraud Republican partisans have used to justify the demand for photo ID.
Voting rights activists have long argued that since photo ID can cost money, or may demand expensive trips to government agencies, the requirement constitutes a "poll tax." Taxes on the right to vote were used for a century to prevent blacks and others from voting in the south and elsewhere. They were specifically banned by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1964.
But the Court's lead opinion, written by Justice Stevens, normally a liberal, said that though rare, the "risk of voter fraud" was nonetheless "real" and that there was "no question about the legitimacy or importance of the state's interest in counting only the votes of eligible voters." The burden of obtaining a voter ID, said the court, was not so difficult as to be deemed unconstitutional. Ohio election protection attorney Cliff Arnebeck believes Stevens joined the decision to divide the Court's conservative majority, and to leave the door open for further litigation.
But there is no indication the corporate media or Democratic Party will be pursuing significant action on this issue any time soon. Though the Kerry Campaign solicited millions of dollars to "protect the vote" in 2004, it has not supported independent research into that election's irregularities. In the King-Lincoln Civil Rights lawsuit, in which we are attorney and plaintiff, 56 of Ohio's 88 counties destroyed ballot materials, in direct violation of federal law. There has been no official legal follow-up on this case, no major media investigation, and no support from the Democratic Party either to investigate what happened in Ohio 2004, or to make sure it doesn't happen again in 2008. The issue has yet to be seriously raised by the major Democratic candidates despite the fact that it could render their campaigns moot.
This latest Supreme Court decision is yet another blow to voting rights advocates -- and probably to the Democratic nominees for President and other offices. It will clearly make it far more difficult for poor, minority, elderly and young citizens to vote. Tens of thousands of normally Democratic voters in key states -- especially Florida, Michigan, Georgia and Louisiana---will simply be prevented from getting a ballot.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law in its "Friend of the Court" brief noted that between 10 per cent and 13 per cent of eligible voters lack the identification now required in Indiana. People without an official photo ID tend to be disproportionately minorities and poor, ushering a new Jim Crow era based on race and class apartheid. One Indiana study, according to Inter Press Service reporter Jim Lobe, found that 13.3 per cent of registered Indiana voters lacked the now-required ID, but the numbers were significantly higher for black voters at 18 per cent and young voters age 18-34 at more than 20 per cent.
Kathryn Kolbert, President of People for the American Way, put the number at "millions of eligible voters who don't have the ID these laws require."
Photo ID has long been a lynchpin of a concerted GOP strategy to eliminate Democratic voters. In the wake of the theft of the 2004 election in Ohio, Republican activists produced heavily publicized allegations of massive voter fraud, virtually all of which proved to be false.
Nonetheless, the drumbeat for restrictive ID requirements has been steadily rising from GOP strongholds. Other such laws are now virtually certain to follow in states with Republican-controlled legislatures, though it's unclear how many more can be put into law by November.
Nor has the GOP let up in its other campaigns to restrict access to the polls. Extremely harsh limitations on voter registration campaigns in Florida have severely restricted attempts by the League of Women Voters and others to sign up new voters. GOP election officials also have made it clear they will severely restrict the franchise of those who have minor irregularities in the registration forms, such as an errant middle initial or changed address.
It is also unclear how many electronic voting machines will still be in place, come November. Despite a wide range of high-level studies showing them easily hackable, the elimination of touch screen voting machines has proceeded at a glacial pace. No significant federal legislation has been passed to eliminate electronic voting machines or even to make them more secure. With a few exceptions, most notably Florida, progress at the state level has been minimal.
Thus the GOP hope that millions of Americans will be voting on hackable computers this November, and that millions more may be eliminated from the rolls altogether, seems very close to fruition. Whether this will swing the election to John McCain remains to be seen. But this Supreme Court decision allowing the demand for photo ID makes it much more likely.
Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman are co-authors of How the GOP stole America's 2004 Election & Is Rigging 2008 (www.freepress.org) and, with Steve Rosenfeld, of What Happened in Ohio? (the New Press). Bob is publisher of www.freepress.org, where Harvey is senior editor.