AFT fights voter suppression (Apr-2012)

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AFT mobilizing to fight voter suppression

On Campus
March/April 2012
Feature Story

Rush toward voter ID threatens rights of young, poor and minority voters.

Charity Schmidt lives at ground zero in the conservative campaign to make it harder for certain groups of Americans to exercise their right to vote. She is a member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association/AFT at the University of Wisconsin. She also teaches a course called “Sociology of Race, Ethnicity and Diversity” at Madison College (formerly Madison Area Technical College) to an urban, working-class student population quite different from the undergrads at UW.

Last year at this time, the TAA and young people statewide were crucial in organizing the uprising in the state capital when newly elected Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican legislators rammed through legislation to abolish bargaining rights for public employees. Another bill they put on the fast track was the Voter Photo ID law, which changes requirements for how residents qualify to vote. Wisconsin was one of a handful of states that have recently passed such bills.

The law requires voters to show a photo ID such as a driver’s license or state-issued ID in order to receive a ballot and vote. While it sounds simple on the surface, in practice, it is not, say experts on voter ID laws. In a letter to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, four political scientists from the University of Wisconsin noted, “The most consistent finding from academic studies is that voter ID requirements disproportionately affect several subpopulations: ethnic and racial minorities, high school and college students, senior citizens and [the] disabled, women, and those with low incomes.”

"My students are affected,” says Schmidt. “I have great concern over their access to the voting booth.” In past renditions of the class, she adds, voting “is something we normally talk about out of a textbook, with historical examples. Now we have the opportunity to talk about it happening right here and now.”

For example, her students view a video posted on YouTube showing what happened at a Department of Motor Vehicles office when a woman took her son to get a photo ID. The agent’s questions about the young man’s bank statement, which he used as proof of residency, seem to violate his privacy. Also, the agent did not ask if the ID was for the purpose of voting—which would allow the applicant to get it free instead of having to pay the $20 the DMV charges for licenses and photo IDs.

Schmidt’s students also look at a news story about a DMV employee who was fired for sending an e-mail to fellow workers urging them to ask applicants the purpose of their visit and to tell them that the voter photo ID is free. Since the law was passed, local governments in Wisconsin have been closing DMV offices and changing their hours of operation in ways that seem to place a greater hardship on low-income and minority residents, who may have difficulty getting off work or getting to hard-to-reach locations.

Another TAA member, Kaja Rebane, is a transplant to Wisconsin who went online to double-check the requirements for voting to make sure her ID was in compliance. “I’m a doctoral student at a world-class research university, [but the website] looks confusing. Most of the things you have to have to prove residence I don’t have. I have a lease, but three of us are on it and only one can take it to the polls. We don’t have utility bills—our landlord pays them.

If you don’t have a certified birth certificate, which frankly most people don’t, you have to pay for that and go through a process. If you’re a low-income single mother, is it ethically justifiable to take $20 from food for your kids to pay for the documentation to register to vote?”

A rollback in voting rights

For the first time in decades, America is seeing a rollback in what had been a steady expansion of voting rights.

A year ago, Georgia and Indiana were the only states requiring voters to show photo identification cards. Since then, 34 states have introduced voter ID legislation. Five bills passed, five were vetoed and the rest are pending in state legislatures, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school, which notes that about 11 percent of adult citizens, or 21 million people, don’t have a valid, government-issued photo ID.

The reason behind this legislation seems to have little or nothing to do with claims of voter fraud. Evidence of actual voter fraud is incredibly low. The real reason may have more to do with preventing certain voters from exercising their rights as citizens.

The Brennan Center says these new restrictions fall most heavily on young, poor and minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic. In fact, the percentage of potential voters who don’t have photo IDs is significantly higher among African-Americans, at 25 percent, and low-income Americans, at 15 percent.

This wave of changes may tilt the scales in this year’s elections. Based on the Brennan Center’s analysis:

  • These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots this year.
  • States that have cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes this fall, about two-thirds of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
  • Of 12 likely battleground states, as assessed by a Los Angeles Times analysis of Gallup polling last year, five have cut back on voting rights.

Although it’s too early to tell how the changes will affect voter turnout, they may tamp down voting at a time when the United States turns out less than two-thirds of eligible voters in presidential elections. States that require photo IDs are making them available free, but voters, especially women, often have to buy copies of their birth certificates, marriage licenses or divorce decrees to prove their identity.

"A voter whose driver’s license has expired, or someone who has to take a day off work and go to city hall for a copy of his or her birth certificate, may just say to heck with it,” says AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson. “We are very troubled by voter ID laws, and we will fight them.”

A few examples, by state:

  • Strict new photo ID laws, if they withstand scrutiny by the courts, could make voting this year tougher in Kansas, Texas and Wisconsin, according to the Brennan Center.
  • Florida’s new law, like those in Louisiana, Michigan and three other states, will make voting trickier by asking for photo IDs and allowing voters without them to cast a regular ballot only under certain conditions, like signing an affidavit. This will complicate voting for low-income workers, minorities and young adults, reports the Fair Elections Legal Network.
  • In Kansas, the secretary of state is pushing legislators to move up from January 2013 to this June a requirement for voters to present proof of citizenship. Hearings last month aired concerns, including the fact that the state’s computer system may not be ready.
  • In Maryland, pending legislation would force voters who don’t show an ID to cast only a provisional ballot.
  • In New Mexico, a bill would require voters to present a valid government ID, including student and tribal enrollment numbers, and would require two poll workers to match IDs with voter registration rolls.

Your voice can be heard

As grim as this is, don’t get the idea that it’s all bad news. Facing a revolt by voters, top state officials in Ohio are calling on lawmakers to repeal a voter suppression law passed last year that shortens the early voting period.

Bad legislation was shelved in Maine last November when citizens voted overwhelmingly to defeat legislation that would have ended same-day voter registration.

A recent state hearing in Florida spotlighted voter suppression.

Coalitions in Tennessee and Wisconsin are helping prospective voters obtain IDs, and groups such as the NAACP, Voces de la Frontera and the American Civil Liberties Union are bringing lawsuits against Wisconsin’s new voter ID law.

The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing voter legislation in states and jurisdictions subject to the federal Voting Rights Act. “We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination and partisan influence—and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said during a speech in Austin, Texas, last December. He urged Americans to speak out and “raise awareness about what’s at stake.”

Holder made those remarks shortly after the Justice Department rejected a voter identification law passed by the South Carolina Legislature, on the grounds that it discriminated against minorities and thus violated the federal Voting Rights Act.

"The issue is horrible," says Victor George Sánchez, president of the United States Student Association. "It’s not really likely these laws will be overturned, so strategically, we’re doing education and agitation to activate change down the road. We plan to do lots of education forums and peer-to-peer contacts.”

In Alabama, the annual commemoration of the historic 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. will take on national significance this year. Alabama AFT members will join other voting and immigrant rights activists marching to defeat voter suppression laws and reverse anti-immigrant laws nationwide. “Alabama could become one of those states where you have to prove you’re a U.S. citizen to vote,” says Derryn Moten, co-president of the Faculty-Staff Alliance/AFT at Alabama State University.

With the remembrance of Bloody Sunday, the five-day march will begin on March 4 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and end with a rally at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery on March 9, where AFT president Randi Weingarten will speak.

The University of Wisconsin has committed resources to helping ensure that students have the right photo IDs to qualify to vote, but it is costing tens of thousands of dollars.

"My personal beef," says Rebane of the TAA, “is that we are fighting for funding for higher education and we are facing huge budget cuts. Now we have this unfunded mandate.

"Conservatives like to talk about responsible spending, and this is totally irresponsible—to address a problem that doesn’t exist."

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