The Republican Party’s war on Democratic voting blocks is like a game of three-dimensional chess in which their strategies are intended to remain dormant until Election Day, and in the following days when votes are officially counted.
But their game plan is simple. They want to discourage voters by complicating every step for new and existing voters from specific blue cohorts, such as students, poor people and minorities. They’ve adopted new laws or rules that target pathways surrounding polling place voting, while keeping voting by mail—a longtime GOP strategy—free from similar rules. And they are spreading fears that there will be vastly more policing of the process to scare away voters, when in reality that’s not likely to be the case.
While most of the GOP’s voter suppression strategies are designed to erupt in November, it is now possible to identify at least three major areas where hundreds of thousands of likely Democratic votes have already been thwarted—and where steps to reverse that process, if possible, must be taken soon before fall voter registration deadlines kick in.
As Michelle Obama told the Latino Caucus at the Democratic Convention on Wednesday morning, “In the end this election could come down to those last few thousand votes in some of those key battleground states like Ohio.” She offered more specifics, pointing to Florida’s margins in 2008. “We won Florida by 236,000 votes. And while that might sound like a lot, that’s just 26 votes per precinct… And if you think that’s close, don’t forget that we won North Carolina by just 14,000 votes. That’s just five votes per precinct—five!”
What follows are three ways Republicans have already impacted voting in 2012—even though most of their political chess moves are not intended to kick in until Election Day.
1. Criminalize Voter Registration Drives
This strategy can best be seen in—surprise—Florida. According to a new report by Project Vote, at least 23 states have new rules for groups that conduct voter registration drives. The strictest of these require volunteers to undergo state trainings, set tight timetables for turning in registration applications and ban paying field workers based on the number of registrations filed. These kinds of new rules target groups like Project Vote, which once assisted low-income advocates such as ACORN in its drives.
Florida’s voter registration restrictions, which went into effect July 2011 and stayed in effect until this June (when they were thrown out by a federal court) also had big fines for any mistakes made with registration forms. A recent New York Times report noted that groups that previously registered voters in Florida, such as the League of Women Voters, Rock the Vote and Florida Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), stopped while the law was in effect. Compared to this period a year before the 2008 election, Florida has 250,000 fewer new Democratic registrants, the Times said.
A just-released paper by Dartmouth College’s Michael Herron and the University of Florida’s Daniel Smith traces the disproportionate impact of Florida’s suppression laws on likely Democrats. It noted that Rock the Vote registered 140,000 people in 2008, “primarily college students,” but did not resume registering voters once the new law took effect in July 2011. It found there were 79,000 fewer new voter registration applications between 2007 and 2011, of which 15,000 fewer applications were from people under 21. While Florida’s 2011 election law reforms affected voters across all ethnic groups, the political scientists found it was “more pronounced for Democratic registrants.”
While voter registration groups have been busy in Florida since early June’s federal court ruling, they still lost a year—thanks to the GOP. Floridians who are eligible to vote must register 29 days before the November election, so there is still time left. But the GOP didn’t stop there. If you moved from one county to another in Florida since the last election, you have to file a change of address form, or else you will be given a provisional ballot on Election Day.
Academics expect Florida will issue 300,000 provisional ballots on Election Day, a large number that will slow down polling place voting. Moreover, Florida’s November ballot will be the longest ever—also because of legislative changes—and that too will mean polling place delays. None of these complicating steps needed to happen. They were adopted by Republicans who want to erect barriers.
In Wisconsin, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a law that requires anyone registering voters to be certified by the local election office where that new voter is a resident. Before the law, those working on registration drives could get a statewide certification. This new local requirement "is a real pain," said Andrea Kaminski of the Wisconsin's League of Women Voters, because the state has 1,750 local election jurisdictions. "I can tell you the numbers, but I can tell you it has hurt our efforts."
2. Disenfranchise Felons—Again
Florida’s shady reputation extends to its shameful treatment of former felons, of whom an estimated 200,000 lost their right to vote in 2012 because the state’s GOP Tea Party Governor Rick Scott and legislature reversed a voting rights reform from the previous governor, moderate Republican Charlie Crist. In 2011, Scott and the GOP passed a law that requires nonviolent offenders who have completed their sentence to wait five years before applying for a clemency board hearing to regain voting rights. All other former offenders must wait seven years.
According to the Sentencing Project’s latest numbers, as of 2010 there were 1.3 million ex-felons living in Florida—almost one out of every 10 voting-age adults. A recent report in the Nation estimated that 200,000 former felons would have been eligible to vote this fall were it not for the state’s new disenfranchisement policy. “Blacks are 13 percent of registered voters in Florida, but 23 percent of disenfranchised felons,” it said.
Florida is not alone in its treatment of former felons when it comes to voting rights. In Virginia, another 2012 swing state, there are about 350,000 ex-felons who have not regained their voting rights. And in Iowa, another swing state, there are at least 12,000 parolees and federal probationers, according to the Sentencing Project, many of whom just lost their voting rights. Last year, Iowa’s new Republican Governor, Terry Branstad, rescinded an executive order that had returned voting rights to ex-felons.
Nationally, there are 5.85 million disenfranchised felons, the Sentencing Project reports, with three-quarters living outside prisons and jails. Curiously, ex-felons are not a monolithic Democratic voting block, said Michael McDonald of George Mason University, a nationally known expert on voter turnout. Many who regain their voting rights are white-collar criminals who support Republicans. However, in states such as Florida, a disproportionate number come from communities of color where voting histories typically are pro-Democrat.
3. Spread Propaganda That Voters Will Be Policed
Every war has a propaganda component and the GOP’s war on Democratic voters is no exception. In Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Kansas and New Mexico, top state election officials have decried the alleged presence of tens of thousands of non-citizens on their voting rolls, which would be illegal. (The reality is the numbers are very small.) They have said the state must take steps to police the rolls and polls. This deliberate posturing has already had a negative impact on voters, according to Florida’s Ion Sancho, who is the supervisor of elections in Leon County, where the state capital is located.
In Florida, Scott and his handpicked secretary of state this summer claimed that there were more than 180,000 non-citizens on voter rolls and a massive purge was needed. They later took back that assertion, walking back from the poised purge and saying they’d study the issue after November. But the Florida GOP knew exactly what it was doing by making the false claims and preying on people’s fears. Sancho said his office keeps getting calls from would-be voters who think they lack the proper identifying documents to get a ballot in November.
“The newspapers talked about a purge—there wasn’t a purge,” he said. “And Florida did not change its voter ID law. But all this information is confusing young voters, confusing minorities, and nothing has changed [with voter ID requirements]. Nothing.”
Worse, where there have been changes in voting procedures, such as with moved or consolidated polling places after state and congressional redistricting, new requirements for filing change-of-address forms, and shortened early voting periods and new weekend voting hours, the state has yet to launch any public education efforts to avoid chaos this fall.
“Where are the public education efforts by the secretary of state,” Sancho asks. “Where are the public service ads in the state of Florida?” The answer is they are not on the air—not yet. And that is largely true in other swing states like Pennsylvania, where the state is now unrolling a new voter ID program that may affect hundreds of thousands of urban voters who do not have driver’s licenses.
As Michelle Obama told the Latino Caucus in Charlotte on Wednesday morning, the president will not get reelected unless “every single person you know… gets to the polls and casts their vote.” She continued, “Because, as Barack said, this election is going to be even closer than the last one.”
But President Obama is not the only one who knows this. The Republican Party also knows it. That is why they have been working since 2009 to tilt the electoral rules and playing field to their benefit. And with two months to go until Election Day, there’s plenty of evidence that tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters are already being thwarted in 2012’s swing states.