In the State of Florida, some state legislators and election officials are trying to do away with most early voting, and in particular, a very successful program to allow voters to cast their ballots the weekend before the election. Similarly in Ohio, another key battleground state this election, officials are trying to do away with an early election program put into place after the disastrous 2000 election in which voters had to wait hours on election day in order to vote.
Given the success of these programs in boosting voter participation, it is logical to ask why some officials are trying to curtail them. The answer given – to attack the problem of voter fraud – simply doesn't add up. For one thing, there is very little evidence of actual voter fraud, as opposed to registration fraud. And for another, there is no reason to believe that early voting is subject to greater fraud than same day voting.
The more plausible explanation is far less benign – these laws are designed to reduce legitimate voter turnout and in particular, discourage minority voters. In Florida, more than half of African Americans cast their ballots the weekend before the last Presidential election. Similarly, in Ohio and other states which allow early voting, a disproportionate number of minority voters take advantage of the opportunity to cast their ballots before election day.
It's not just early voting that is under assault, as states adopt a range of policies to roll back access to the ballot box. These include ending same day registration, reducing absentee voting, and most prevalent of all – imposing a new requirement for voters to present a government-issued photo ID or other documentary proof of citizenship in order to vote.
These new requirements have come despite eleven percent of American citizens lacking a photo ID and another seven percent of our citizens not possessing formal "proof" of citizenship. Most shocking is the impact of these new identification requirements on the African-American community in particular – one in four African-Americans do not have a state ID, and these types of voter ID laws are now on the books in at least thirty states.
The new voter suppression laws will lead to significant burdens for voters who only want to exercise their right and let their voices be heard. According to the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, it is estimated that these new laws would make it harder for 10 million eligible Americans to cast their ballots. While these new laws will lower voter registration and turnout across the board, they will specifically and disproportionately impact young, elderly, minority, low-income, and disabled voters.
Fortunately, the courts have been loath to countenance this blatant effort to disenfranchise minority voters. Federal courts in Florida, Ohio and Texas have acted to suspend these laws in some – but not all – affected jurisdictions. But more needs to be done to ensure we do not turn the clock back and eviscerate the right which is deemed the foundation of all other rights.
Along with many of my colleagues in the House – including giants like Congressmen John R. Lewis and James E. Clyburn – I have co-sponsored the Voter Empowerment Act. This bill will modernize our voter registration system to guarantee equal access for all Americans and to protect voters from restrictive voting measures – combating the state laws that make it more difficult for eligible voters to get to the polls. It will also modernize the way we vote by requiring voter registration be made available on the Internet, automatic registration for certain individuals, ensure same-day registration, facilitate individuals with disabilities to vote, and accept voter registration applications from potential voters who are at least 16 years old.
Four years ago, America elected its first African American president and the nation celebrated the immense new stride it had taken towards equality for all its citizens. On that night, President Obama spoke about Ann Nixon Cooper, a woman born in 1902, when women could not vote and African American access to the polls was severely limited. How jarring and incongruous to now find many states stepping back in time to an era when so many Americans were disenfranchised. We must not let them succeed.
Representative Adam Schiff serves in the U.S. House of Representatives, and represents the 29th Congressional District.