Laila Stones was born on the floor, at the house her family shared in Danville, Virginia, just before sunset on May 2, 1959. Her mother, Joan, was 13 years old. There was a midwife, but for whatever reason – lack of a licence, perhaps, or the stigma of unmarried pregnancy – she did not record the event.
“I first realised it was gonna be a problem when I sent to Virginia for a birth certificate and they sent me back a letter saying that I don’t exist,” Stones says. “That was a blow. How’s somebody gonna tell you that you don’t exist? You have a social security number, you live, you work. I graduated from high school, worked 33 years as a nurse. How are they gonna tell me I don’t exist?”
After the September 11 attacks, Stones lost her job as a private nurse because she could no longer travel without a passport. But she has never had difficulty voting, until now. She first cast a ballot in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, winning 44 of 50 states, including her adopted home state of Pennsylvania. “I voted to try to keep him out,” she laughs. “To no success.”
Under a new law introduced by Pennsylvania’s Republican legislators, voters must show a state-issued photographic identity card at the polls: something that Stones does not have and cannot get, despite the best efforts of a legal aid attorney working on her behalf. Unless the judge in a pending case blocks the law, she will watch November’s presidential election from the sidelines.
“I’m a feel real hurt,” she says. “I need to do that for me. Not for Obama, not for Romney, not for anybody else. It’s the only thing that keeps me feeling part of a whole. You ever had the feeling that you’re in a room full of people, but you’re alone? Well, that’s how I feel in this world.”
According to the state of Pennsylvania’s official estimate, at least 750,000 registered voters do not have a driving licence – the most commonly used photo ID – meaning that 9.2% of the population will be disenfranchised unless they make the effort to get the documents they need. Most of these voters live in urban areas, including 185,000 in Philadelphia.
Democrats win in Pennsylvania by running up big gains in the city, where African-American voters are in a majority, then clinging on when the returns from socially conservative rural areas come in. It has been 24 years since a Democratic presidential candidate lost the state, but the margins are thin. John Kerry beat George W. Bush by fewer than 150,000 votes.
Speaking at a gathering of his Republican colleagues, the leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Mike Turzai, boasted that this time would be different, as he listed his party’s recent accomplishments: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.” In a moment of candour, among friends, the law’s true purpose was revealed.
Pennsylvania is not an isolated case. Since the last election, 19 states have tightened voting rules and there are bills pending in 6 more states. “It is unprecedented in scale and scope for decades,” says Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Programme at the Brennan Centre for Justice at New York University School of Law. “It is the worst legislative rollback of voting rights since the post-reconstruction era.” Then, in the aftermath of Civil War, southern states introduced poll taxes, literacy tests and residency requirements to prevent blacks from voting. These were dismantled by the Voting Rights Act in 1965, but a pernicious new campaign to restrict the franchise is underway.
“Once the numbers of people who are affected gets into millions, you can rest assured that this is a significant threat that could influence the outcome of elections,” says Weiser. “We’ve increasingly seen razor thin margins, especially in key battleground states, at the presidential level. There’s no question that these laws could make the difference.”
At a national level, demographic trends favour the Democratic party. Huge numbers of socially liberal millennial generation voters are coming of age. The Hispanic share of the electorate, currently 14%, is projected to increase by roughly 2% per election cycle. In 2008, handed the chance to elect the USA’s first black president, more African-Americans voted than ever before, almost wiping out the longstanding participation gap: 65% of blacks voted, compared to 66% of whites.
Sweeping Republican gains in the 2010 midterm elections (thanks, in part, to low turnout among minorities and younger voters) created an opportunity to tilt the playing field back in the Grand Old Party’s favour. In states where there was no longer much of a Democratic check, Republicans began rewriting the rules, often based on a draft Voter ID bill produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council: a corporately-funded conservative group. In Wisconsin, Texas, Kansas, South Carolina and Tennessee, ALEC members sponsored the bills.
These laws purport to eliminate fraud, but despite a concerted effort, no-one has been able to uncover widespread cheating. Under George W. Bush, the Department of Justice spent five years investigating voter fraud and convicted just 86 people nationwide. Several federal prosecutors who declined to pursue politically-motivated voter fraud cases were sacked, resulting in a scandal that caused Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign.
In the last two elections in Texas, there were five complaints of impersonation, out of 13 million votes cast. In Pennsylvania, the new law’s backers have conceded that they have no evidence of voter fraud, nor any indication that it is likely to occur. The crime is exceptionally rare for two simple reasons: the existing penalties of a five year prison term and a $10,000 fine are deterrent enough, and only a fool would try to steal an election vote by single vote.
The attacks on voting rights are not limited to ID laws or similar statutes requiring people to provide proof of citizenship in order to vote. The irony of the Help America Vote Act, passed in response to the bitterly disputed outcome of the 2000 presidential election, is that it created new opportunities for partisan tweaks to the rules. In Florida, where George W. Bush’s official margin of victory was 537 votes, new Republican Governor Rick Scott and his allies in the state legislature have adopted several different suppression approaches at once.
The early voting period has been cut in half. A popular provision allowing voting on the Sunday before an election, used by African-American churches to mobilise whole congregations, has been eliminated. Rules governing the voting rights of ex-criminals have been made stricter, effectively disenfranchising almost a million people for life, including one in five black men. Nationally, 5.85 million people will not be able to vote because they have been convicted of a felony.
Undeterred by flawed purges that disenfranchised thousands of eligible voters in two of the last three presidential elections, the state is pressing ahead with a new effort to strike cheats from the rolls. Following an investigation by the Supervisors of Elections, 98.4% of the people identified as “potential non-citizens” were cleared to vote, but after successfully suing the government for access to a federal list of suspected illegal immigrants, the Governor has promised to try again.
New regulations were introduced making it a bureaucratic nightmare to register voters, with an attendant list of crimes and penalties for failure to comply. The changes were so draconian that the Florida League of Women Voters, which has been running vote drives for decades, shut down its efforts, until a federal judge blocked the law, saying that it was “harsh and impractical” and served no legitimate purpose.
Last week, the Tampa Bay Times published a leaked deposition of Florida’s former Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer. He claims to have been “upset because the political consultants and staff were talking about voter suppression and keeping blacks from voting.” Greer has been pushed out by his party and is on trial for embezzlement, but his testimony is an interesting deviation from the party line.
Many of the laws make little effort to disguise their partisan intent. In Texas, under the new rules, a concealed handgun permit is an acceptable form of identification, whereas a university ID card is not. The Department of Justice has sued to block the law, arguing that “at least 1.4 million registered voters in Texas lack any form of state-issued ID accepted… and those voters are disproportionately Hispanic and black.”
In Pennsylvania, Judge Robert E. Simpson will rule this week as to whether the new law can stand. Both sides will appeal if they lose. Witnesses testified that Pennsylvania Department of Transportation offices are understaffed, leading to lengthy wait times. The state has promised to issue a photo ID card for people unable to get valid identification any other way, but only if they can prove that they have made every attempt to do so, meaning they must demonstrate their commitment to democracy by standing in a queue for several hours not once, but twice.
During his successful campaign to become Governor, Tom Corbett told a group of Republicans that the key to victory was to ensure low turnout in the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia. “We want to make sure they don’t get 50 percent – keep that down,” he said. As a means of deterring urban voters, particularly the poor, young, or old voters most likely to lack a driving licence, the new law could hardly be better designed. Even if these groups show extraordinary determination to vote, the state bureaucracy cannot process anywhere close to 15,000 applications a week between now and November, meaning people will inevitably be shut out in huge numbers.
The court heard testimony from Wilola Shinholster Lee, whose birth certificate was lost in a house fire. When she applied for a replacement from Georgia, where she was born, they told her the original was destroyed when the courthouse burned down. “All these years I’ve been going up to the polls, now all of a sudden they want you to show ID. I feel like it’s discrimination,” she says. “My vote means a lot to me. Taking it away is violating my rights. A lot of people say ‘oh, I’m not gonna vote, it doesn’t make a difference.’ Yes, it does. It makes a big difference. Every vote counts.”
In a recent poll, Obama’s lead over Romney in Pennsylvania was just 3%, making the state a virtual dead heat. And because of the winner-takes-all electoral college system, a narrow victory here or in Florida could determine who wins the presidency. “There are certainly many scenarios in which these laws could make the difference,” says Weiser. “All of this is playing the odds, gaming the system, rather than establishing a fair set of rules that everybody can count on and having a campaign on the issues. We should not be fighting over who gets to vote and how they vote. We should be fighting about what they’re voting for.”