How new laws are preventing voters from casting their ballot

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New laws restricting voting rights hit African Americans and the poor particularly hard. That, of course, is no coincidence.

Two dozen fragile, white-haired nuns from the Our Lady of Peace Residence waited for hours last summer at the Driver’s Licensing Center in Dunmore, Pennsylvania to get state-issued IDs that would allow them to vote under Pennsylvania’s new photo ID voter law. Unlike many seniors, the sisters had help getting together documents that would fulfill the new law’s demands, along with drivers who took them to the center and waited with them—a wait of four hours for one 95-year-old. “It was so hard on them,” says Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Margaret Gannon, 87. “Many of them have diabetes and arthritis.”

The Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters joined thousands of other Pennsylvanians who swamped state licensing centers—which did not respond by expanding their hours. It was even worse in some other states with new voter ID laws. The office issuing IDs near Sauk City, Wisconsin was open only on the fifth Wednesday of the month for people trying to satisfy the new law there. Fifth Wednesdays come four times a year.

Gannon and other Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters saw Pennsylvania’s controversial new voter ID requirements as a justice issue, and they shared their story with the local paper, which ran it on the front page. “We represented thousands and thousands,” says Gannon. “Usually we work on justice issues that don’t touch us personally, but this one does.”

Opponents of the new law argue that the Republican legislators backing it had not identified a single case of voter fraud that the law would have stopped, and yet they threatened to disenfranchise 750,000 of the most vulnerable Pennsylvania citizens. A Pennsylvania judge agreed and postponed the law in October 2012.

Voter ID requirements are just one of a myriad of new laws and policies proposed in recent years that hinder voting, especially for poor and minority voters. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund has found a direct link between “increasing, unprecedented turnout among voters of color and the proliferation of restrictive measures across the country.” Their report Defending Democracy found the assault on voting rights in recent years to be historic, “both in terms of its scope and its intensity.”

The Supreme Court’s pending decision on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (UPDATE: Read about the Court's decision on the Voting Rights Act here and the U.S. bishops' statement on voting rights here) has troubled some court watchers, who sound pessimistic about its survival. Section 5 compels states and counties with a history of voter suppression to “preclear” any election rule changes with the Justice Department. Opponents argue it is outdated and an unnecessary infringement on state sovereignty. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia described Section 5 as a “racial preferment” because it does not protect white voting rights.

Gary May, professor of history at the University of Delaware and author of Bending Toward Justice (Basic Books), a history of the Voting Rights Act, says Scalia’s attitude shows either obliviousness to our nation’s history of minority voter suppression or “woeful ignorance” of the Voting Rights Act’s history. May sees the current chipping away at voting as an organized campaign, “in some ways even stronger than the original state-by-state efforts to disenfranchise voters after Reconstruction in the South,” he says. “I see this as a second generation of those efforts.”

He’s referring to how African Americans voted in large numbers during the years immediately following the Civil War, but when federal troops left the South in 1877, unrepentant Southerners suppressed the black vote. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses (where only men whose grandfathers had voted could vote), and rigged questions like, “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” were all used to keep African Americans from the polls.

“Today we’re seeing a modern version of what was done after Reconstruction,” says May. “This is not a small thing; it’s an attempt to suppress the minority vote coming at a time when we have a much more diverse country.”

Denise Lieberman, a senior attorney for the Advancement Project, another civil rights organization, points out that democracy only works if everyone has a voice. She offers that the problem is the cumulative effect of efforts to discourage voting among marginalized citizens. Getting a photo ID is harder for most poor citizens, she says, but the difficulties don’t stop there. “Maybe I have a hard time getting to the polling place,” Lieberman suggests. “Maybe I have a disability and then the lines are long and I’ve got two kids in tow—those burdens add up.”

Lieberman says that women religious have been extremely helpful in St. Louis. “They’ve been able to elevate the discussion beyond the political,” she says. “It’s a hard thing to talk about without sounding partisan, when really we just want to give a voice to the voiceless.” Sister of Loretto Mary Ann McGivern, based in St. Louis, explains that the reason she has become involved in defending voting rights is because it’s the bedrock of democracy. “The Catholic principle of subsidiarity says that the people affected by a decision should make the decision,” she says. “So the right to vote is foundational
to all our other rights.”

Walk in their shoes

Americans who possess some combination of stable income, transportation, child care, and flexible work arrangements are unlikely to be affected by voting restrictions. “They only affect the most vulnerable,” says Lorraine Minnite, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. “People react to the voter ID laws by projecting their own situation onto everyone else’s. But there are millions of Americans who cannot meet the ID requirements. They’re marginalized people, elderly people.”

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law estimates that 10 percent of eligible voters—nearly 22 million people—lack a valid government-issued photo ID. The center estimates 25 percent of African Americans lack the type of government-issued photo IDs required by the new laws; 18 percent of Americans over 65 lack such an ID. The voter ID laws, which demand a current address, are disproportionately burdensome to the homeless and to poor Americans, who move frequently.

The Catholic Church, however, has yet to take an official stand on the potential injustices that these laws create. “The church’s leaders have been shockingly and scandalously silent on this issue,” says Father Bryan Massingale, theology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

Glenmary Father Les Schmidt, based in Virginia, agrees. “On the immigration issue, the church was way out ahead,” he says. “But on voting there’s this almost eerie silence. I’m puzzled. From the point of view of Catholic social teaching, there is an obligation that every person should vote. This is not a political football; it’s human rights. This is a human justice issue.”

Some state Catholic conferences, which act as diocesan public policy arms, remained neutral on voter ID legislation. The Minnesota Catholic Conference, for instance, decided reasonable people could differ on the state’s proposed voter ID law. “Some believe the photo ID requirement is necessary to ensure fair elections that are free of corruption,” the conference’s executive director, Jason Adkins, wrote in The Catholic Spirit, the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocesan newspaper. “Others believe that requiring photo ID cards is a solution in search of a nonexistent problem, and that the law will disenfranchise vulnerable citizens for whom it will be difficult to obtain identification. The provision in the amendment, however, requiring the issuance of free ID cards to anyone who needs them would seem to address this concern.”

In contrast, Joanne Boyer, a Minnesota Catholic, knocked on doors and spoke out at meetings in order to defeat Minnesota’s proposed law, telling people again and again: “Not everyone’s life is like yours.” The Minnesota law went down to defeat in 2012, largely because of people like Boyer who successfully communicated their outrage over voter suppression. “It was so transparent,” Boyer says of the proposed law’s intent. “Because we didn’t have a problem.”

Other states have had more success in passing voter ID laws—in recent years more than 30 states have adopted some form of restrictions, although courts stalled some from taking effect in the 2012 elections.

In Sumter, South Carolina, when Dr. Brenda Williams heard about South Carolina’s new voter ID law, she immediately saw trouble coming for her elderly patients, many of whom don’t have IDs. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law from going into effect in 2012; it’s uncertain what will happen if the Supreme Court strikes down the Section 5 rules.

Williams, who says her nonstop energy is fueled by her faith, decided she’d help people who needed IDs. She quickly learned that in order to get the $5 state ID, people needed their birth certificates—something that many African Americans born before the 1960s don’t possess.

“This is a pressing matter, particularly in the South where so many persons were delivered by midwives,” Williams says. “They are not criminals; they’re the people that this country was built upon. But most don’t have cars or telephones. They’re indigent people; many don’t even have plumbing—and they certainly don’t have the means to get those IDs.”

Williams put up a sign at her office saying that she’d help. Word spread and she had many people seeking assistance with getting an ID, which often costs far more than $5. It was $68.50 in the case of the first woman Williams helped, a relatively simple case since the woman only needed to request her birth certificate and marriage certificate from the government archives. If she’d been divorced, she would have needed divorce papers as well, and if she’d remarried, she would have needed a second marriage certificate. And so on, for as many times as her name had changed.

That woman’s case was also easier because her birth certificate was error free. Sometimes the birth certificate lists only a first name; sometimes only the surname, “Baby girl Kennedy,” for instance. In those cases, the court must approve an amended birth certificate.

Retired family court judge Ruben Gray has also been helping Sumter-area people clear up their birth records. In one case, he’s been working since June 2011 to convince the family court to approve an amended birth certificate for a 59-year-old Walmart employee whose birth certificate listed both of his names incorrectly. If Gray were charging for his services, he has estimated the bill would come to $1,800 in some cases. Clients could not afford those costs and thus wouldn’t be able to afford to vote. In comparison, the poll tax banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, adjusted for inflation, would today be about $11.

Williams’ husband, also a physician, can’t understand the reason for denying people without IDs the opportunity to vote. “These are American citizens,” Dr. Joseph Williams says. “We know people here who’ve never been out of Sumter County; what are they other than Americans? Maybe I’m being idealistic, but why aren’t we working to get more people voting? Low participation is the big problem, not voter fraud.”

Indeed, the Carnegie-Knight Initiative’s News21 project analyzed all the alleged voter fraud cases they could find since 2000—2,068 cases. Only 10 of those cases were in-person voter impersonation—the only kind of voter fraud addressed by voter ID laws. Public policy professor Minnite says impersonation—when someone tries to vote under a false name—is incredibly rare and even nonsensical: How many people would risk a felony in order to impersonate someone else to gain a single extra vote? “It’s a phony issue,” says historian May.

Yet millions of people believe in rampant voter impersonation and have supported the new ID laws. Minnite looked into how this happened and discovered no scholarly works on voter fraud, although some think tanks had regularly circulated information claiming voter fraud is common. “These have been successful propaganda campaigns, in part because the media has been so uncritical about the bad information,” says Minnite. Her own scholarly book ended up being titled The Myth of Voter Fraud (Cornell University Press).

Life sentence

Unlike new laws requiring photo IDs, laws excluding anyone with a felony conviction from voting are as old as the laws that once barred African Americans, Catholics, women, and the landless from voting. Restrictions against felons voting vary by state. In Maine and Vermont, felons can vote from prison. But other states bar voting for not only those in prison but those on parole or probation, too. In a handful of states, felons never regain their right to vote.

That’s counter to the church’s teaching on restorative justice. In their 2000 statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, the U.S. bishops wrote that “we must welcome ex-offenders back into society as full participating members, to the extent feasible, and support their right to vote.”

The Advancement Project’s Lieberman argues that disenfranchising ex-felons, many of whom have been convicted of nonviolent offenses, is not only unjust but simply doesn’t make sense because civic engagement has been shown to reduce recidivism. “While feelings of vengeance are understandable, they may not be best in the long run, especially for a society trying to diminish inequality,” Lieberman says. “And disproportionately in the South it’s extremely hard to get out of the incarceration cycle, hard to get a job, and hard to become a citizen again.”

In Florida about 10 percent of the population cannot vote because of felony convictions: 1.5 million out of a voting-age population of about 15 million. (Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans cannot vote because of felony convictions.) In 2011 Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order that imposed an extra wait on ex-felons after completing parole or probation before voting.

That meant Vickie Hankins couldn’t vote in the 2012 elections, despite the fact that she has completed her parole, earned a college degree, and started a publishing business. Hankins speaks out about her disenfranchisement despite knowing that it exposes her to criticism. “But I’m coming to a point where I feel this is part of my journey,” she says.

Brought up in a family that emphasized religion and academics, Hankins’ life took a turn for the worse at age 19, when her mother committed suicide. Afterward she began to sell drugs, was arrested in 1990, and was sentenced to 23 years in accord with mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Hankins was released in 1997, and then was on probation until 2010. She recently received an e-mail from the Office of Executive Clemency telling her that she would not be able to petition the governor to restore her voting rights until 2017. It will probably take longer than that, she guesses, since there’s a backlog of cases.

“The process is still holding on to what I did when I was 21 years old,” Hankins says. “The bottom line is I’m being told: ‘You’re an outsider; you don’t belong; you’re not part of our society.’ That can be destructive to the psyche.”

Felon disenfranchisement hurts both individuals and communities. “It brings up conversations about the civil rights movement,” Hankins says. “It brings up the question of whether these rules are here so that people of these races cannot vote. Are they trying to reverse what Dr. Martin Luther King fought for? People see that. People know the numbers.”

Nationwide, 7.7 percent of adult African Americans (2.2 million) are disenfranchised, compared to 1.8 percent of white voters. Rates of disenfranchised African American voters are particularly high in the South: 23 percent in Florida, 22 percent in Kentucky, and 20 percent in Virginia, which is one of four states that permanently disenfranchises felons. The Virginia Catholic Conference regularly pushes the legislature to overturn that law. They feel they’re getting closer; the governor and the attorney general, both Catholics, support its repeal.

“Everyone who testified said this causes minority disenfranchisement,” says Amanda Jay, the conference’s associate director. “The lawmakers didn’t want to touch that, but it’s impossible to look at the issue without it coming up. It exposes the racial divisions that we would like to pretend are not there.”

Kentucky is another state with permanent felon disenfranchisement. Father Pat Delahanty, executive director of the Kentucky Catholic Conference, succinctly explains a catch-22 of changing legislators’ minds about voting rights. “When you’re advocating on behalf of people who can’t vote, you don’t get much traction with politicians,” he says. “Because people who can’t vote don’t vote.”

Poll fault

“We spend a lot of energy encouraging people to vote,” says Roy Hoelscher, who has worked with the homeless and indigent in Detroit for 45 years. “And then we urge them to keep voting.”

Hoelscher’s organization, the Capuchin Soup Kitchens, connects college students with the homeless to help them run the gauntlet of obtaining IDs and registering to vote. That coalition also achieved the minor miracle of moving a voting site. “It was three miles from the soup kitchen,” Hoelscher says. “For them to have to go to a place they’ve never heard of to vote—it wasn’t happening.”

While there are many examples of polling places being located in spots virtually inaccessible to people without cars, Lieberman says the issue is complicated. In the suburbs, she says, polling sites are spread out in nice facilities. In urban areas, however, it’s harder to find places that are handicapped accessible and with parking or near public transit.

Lieberman, who runs Election Protection for Missouri, says the problem is not just the polling locations but also the resources allotted to locations. “I can tell you which polling places will have the long lines,” she says. “It will be the urban areas with African Americans. We look at how many poll workers and machines are at each polling place. If you only have two machines then that line will build up a lot quicker.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that in 2012 minorities waited an average of twice as long as white voters. In some areas it was much worse. The Orlando Sentinel found that 201,000 Floridians did not vote because of long lines.

“I waited seven and a half hours,” says Jonathan Piccolo of North Miami. A line of about 300 snaked around the building when he arrived at his polling place at 4 p.m. He got out at 11:45 p.m. “Everyone there was of color,” he says. “This was a state-mandated election snafu. They were trying to curtail the Democratic vote.”

Two disgruntled former Florida Republican leaders have gone on the record to say their party curtailed early voting for exactly that reason: Democratic voter suppression. Governor Scott admits that fewer days of early voting—which he had cut—were to blame for the mess.

“People gave up,” says Piccolo. “An additional 80 to 100 people got in line after me. By the time I cast my vote, there were maybe six people behind me.”

No turning back

Catholic priests and women religious were an important part of the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, which led to the Voting Rights Act’s passage. In contrast, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ lawyers did not even file an amicus brief in the 2013 Section 5 case. “We don’t always want to be part of the ‘me-too’ chorus,” says Kathy Saile, director of Domestic Social Development for the USCCB. “Sometimes laity or other sectors have more expertise to weigh in.” That would seem to leave it to the sisters—and individual Catholics, using their prudential judgment—to work for justice in a nonpartisan manner.

Experts agree that will be more difficult now that voter suppression has become a much more partisan issue. “Tinkering with election rules has been going on for 200 years,” Minnite says. “But the election of Barack Obama set off a bomb. It’s triggered racial politics submerged in code words, using nonracial issues to cover up the fact that it’s about race and class.”

“We now have a major, national party working to suppress voters,” adds May. “Obama’s election incentivized these efforts. It’s been a stealth movement, very well funded, and passed with a ton of speed.” May does not, however, think that the voter suppression will ultimately succeed. “I don’t think they can disenfranchise enough people,” he says.

Researching and writing about voting rights, in fact, gave May a new optimism about America’s future. The title of his book, Bending Toward Justice, comes from Martin Luther King’s speech in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. King spoke after he had marched with thousands of others from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights, which followed the Ku Klux Klan’s murder of three voting rights activists who were trying to register African American voters and Bloody Sunday on Selma’s Pettus Bridge.

King reassured the crowd that justice would prevail. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” he told them.

His words still serve as an inspiration for those working to end voter disenfranchisement. “Too many people died for this,” says Dr. Joseph Williams. “We can’t go back.”

Read more about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in "A closer look at the Voting Rights Act."

This article appeared in the July 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 7, pages 18-22).

Image: Photo illustration by Angela Cox