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Thursday, March 14, 2013

The shame of the Arkansas General Assembly

Posted By on Thu, Mar 14, 2013 at 6:03 PM

I'll say one thing for the Republican Party — it stays on message. And after a while, no matter how detached the message is from reality, it's repeated enough to become widely accepted. Particularly if the premise sounds reasonable enough. Admittedly, on its face, requiring voters to present an ID doesn't sound unreasonable. Many of us can't imagine a life where we weren't regularly required to show ID. Unfortunately for Democrats, the argument against ID laws isn't as easily distilled (though Rep. Darrin Williams, at 8:25 in the video above, made an excellent go at it yesterday). The shameful history of minority voter suppression, which Rep. John Walker detailed in his emotional speech (3:55), seems a thing of the distant past to many, I suspect (as Rep. David Meeks' tweet during Walker's speech suggests, "More inappropriate remarks by Rep John Walker from the well. This is 2013"). It's easy to see why Republicans have had such success with the issue.

But, as we've explained again and again, voter ID laws are the product of cynical policy makers eager to gain any edge possible at the ballot box. It's a solution in search of a problem. Voter fraud generally is rare, in-person voter fraud — the only kind prevented by the voter ID law — is almost non-existent. As Jane Mayer reports in the New Yorker:

[Richard L.] Hasen says that, while researching “The Voting Wars,” he “tried to find a single case” since 1980 when “an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter-impersonation fraud.” He couldn’t find one. News21, an investigative-journalism group, has reported that voter impersonation at the polls is a “virtually non-existent” problem. After conducting an exhaustive analysis of election-crime prosecutions since 2000, it identified only seven convictions for impersonation fraud. None of those cases involved conspiracy.

Lorraine Minnite, a public-policy professor at Rutgers, collated decades of electoral data for her 2010 book, “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” and came up with some striking statistics. In 2005, for example, the federal government charged many more Americans with violating migratory-bird statutes than with perpetrating election fraud, which has long been a felony. She told me, “It makes no sense for individual voters to impersonate someone. It’s like committing a felony at the police station, with virtually no chance of affecting the election outcome.” A report by the Times in 2007 also found election fraud to be rare. During the Bush Administration, the Justice Department initiated a five-year crackdown on voter fraud, but only eighty-six people were convicted of any kind of election crime.

Hasen, who calls von Spakovsky a leading member of “the Fraudulent Fraud Squad,” told me that he respects many other conservative advocates in his area of expertise, but dismisses scholars who allege widespread voter-impersonation fraud. “I see them as foot soldiers in the Republican army,” he says. “It’s just a way to excite the base. They are hucksters. They’re providing fake scholarly support. They’re not playing fairly with the facts. And I think they know it.”

Try to find any discussion of voter impersonation farther back than the last decade. Many of the recently introduced bills, including Arkansas's, track back to 2009, a little less than a year after President Obama inspired a historic voter turnout.

In July 2009, at a meeting of the Koch-financed American Legislative Exchange Council, the group's Public Safety and Elections task force approved a model voter ID bill that became the basis of more than half of the 62 ID bills filed in state legislatures across the country in 2011 and 2012, according to News21. Former Arkansas Rep. Dan Greenberg was one of three ALEC members who led the drafting and discussion of the bill. Eleven states passed new voter ID laws in 2011 or 2012. Sen. Bryan King, who sponsored the bill that cleared the House yesterday, sponsored similar legislation during the last regular legislative session when he was a representative; it stalled in a Senate committee.

Greenberg, of course, has been the leading expert testifying before committees of the House and Senate on voter ID (and many other measures). When the bill passed the House yesterday, King tweeted, "Voter ID passes the house. I want to thank former rep Dan Greenberg for all his work on this legislation. He is a great American."

So cynical policy wonks like Greenberg have sold voter ID as strengthening the integrity of elections based on sophistry. Like I said above, they've done a good job selling it. So good that I'm not ready to ascribe ill motives on all those who voted for the measure.

But for someone like Rep. Ann Clemmer, a political science professor and a member of the House State Agencies committee who heard hours of testimony on this, to have the gall to stand up in the well (12:45) and not only refuse to acknowledge our not-too-distant history of egregiously suppressing the votes of minorities, but act indignant that Reps. Walker and Williams would suggest that a voter ID law would disproportionally disenfranchise minorities is shameful.

"To assume that elected representatives of this state, want to keep people voting, it is horrifying to me that anyone in this room believes that about me or anyone else," Clemmer said with her voice wavering. She added that when she spoke in favor of the 12-week ban on abortion that she co-sponsored, she "did not accuse anyone in this body of wanting to kill babies."

During this debate, Republicans were fond of citing statistics that in states where voter ID was introduced, voter turnout actually increased. According to an election official from MIT, cited by Pro Publica, it's too early to tell. There's not enough data.

But I wouldn't be surprised to see turnout increase. I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates (who Ramsey linked to yesterday).

"People don't understand that the attempt to disenfranchise broad swaths of the American population is actually in this country's living memory. People have not forgotten

"You will not make us lazy. You will only make us angry."

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