Voter suppression laws ‘biggest setback in decades’

Suzanne Manneh | 5/9/2012, 9:34 a.m.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, Texas, says his elderly mother could become one of millions of Americans likely to be barred from participating in this year’s voting process because of newly enacted voter suppression legislation.

At 73, and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he notes, she has no driver’s license, no passport and no concealed handgun license — the only forms of voter identification in the state.

Under Texas’ Senate Bill 14, which requires presenting proof of valid photo identification at polling places, Martinez Fischer says she would be “shut out.”

His comments came during a recent national telebriefing for ethnic media co-hosted by New America Media (NAM) and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. The briefing examined the current landscape of state-sponsored voter suppression laws. The Texas representative joined two of the center’s legal experts on the call who challenged the efficacy and constitutionality of the 24 voting laws and executive actions passing in 17 states, since early 2011, and several others still pending. States in which these laws have passed will comprise 70 percent of the electoral vote in the 2012 election.

NAM plans to conduct similar calls for ethnic media on a monthly basis.

According to Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center, there are 74 bills to restrict voting still pending in 24 states across the country, some of which include requirements ranging from presenting valid photo identification to documents of proof of citizenship and the elimination of early voting opportunities.

Voter suppression legislation, Weiser said, is the “biggest setback in voting rights in decades, and an abrupt reversal of a longstanding trend toward expanding access to the franchise.”

While millions of Americans will be affected, she noted, “these laws do not hit all communities equally.” Minority communities, the poor, elderly, students and people with disabilities will be “hardest hit,” she said.

In Florida, Weiser noted, civic and community groups, including the League of Women Voters, have completely shut down their voter registration drives as a result of that state’s new voter legislation that limits such efforts.

This should be of concern, she stressed, because in the 2004 and 2008 elections, hundreds of thousands of Florida voters registered through registration drives.

According to a New York Times report last month, Florida has seen a decrease of over 81,000 registered voters compared to the same time in 2008.

Again, those affected are disproportionately African American and Latino voters, who, according to 2010 Census data, Weiser said, are twice as likely to register through voter registration drives when compared to their white counterparts.

Florida, as well as Ohio, also cut back on Sunday voting. Latinos and African Americans, according to Weiser, have traditionally seen their highest turnouts on Sundays. One third of early votes cast in 2008 were from African Americans on Sunday, despite the fact that blacks make up only 13 percent of the state’s voting-age population. Another 24 percent came from Hispanics, who comprise just 16 percent of the state’s voters.