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So You Think You Can Vote?

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
Georgeanne M. Usova,
Former Senior Legislative Counsel
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November 8, 2011

Election Day should be a time to reflect on our country’s hard won history of expanding access to the polls. But on this Election Day, we are faced with a dramatic rollback of that access — a sweeping trend of voter suppression laws that have been introduced and enacted in state legislatures across the nation. During just the 2011 legislative season alone, regressive measures were introduced in more than 30 states, and 14 states advanced measures that would create more barriers to voting.

These laws could keep people like Joy Lieberman, who has faithfully voted in every election since she first registered in 1952, from casting her ballot in the future. Joy’s original birth certificate does not include her middle name, under which she is registered to vote, which will make it difficult for her to prove her identity. She also suffers from a hand tremor that will prevent her from duplicating her signature accurately on a provisional ballot. If a 2012 ballot initiative allows Missouri legislators to enact a voter ID law, Joy could be kept from voting.

Joy is just one of the estimated 21 million Americans of voting age who lacks documentation that would satisfy photo ID laws. And like Joy, many Americans will face obstacles as a result of physical or financial limitations that make obtaining the necessary documents prohibitively difficult, expensive, or both. Today, 30 states require voters to present identification to vote in federal, state and local elections, although some laws passed during the 2011 legislative session have not yet gone into effect. In 15 of those states, voters must present a photo ID — that in many states must be government-issued — in order to cast a ballot.

Many eligible voters may be surprised that when they go to the polls this year and in 2012, that they will not have, or be able to obtain, the documentation they need to vote — even if they have voted for decades. These laws take a particularly heavy toll on the elderly, people with disabilities, low-income families, students and voters of color.

And there could be more of these laws coming soon. Today, voters in Mississippi will decide the fate of a ballot initiative which would require government-issued photo ID to vote in all future elections.

The recent proliferation of such voter suppression tactics across the country prompted 196 Members of the U.S. House of Representatives to send a letter last week urging Secretaries of State to be vigilant in protecting the franchise. On the House Floor, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer reaffirmed the importance of this goal, stating, “[e]qual access to the ballot is the most fundamental right we all have as Americans. It is what preserves our democracy and instills confidence in our system of government.”

There is no legitimate justification for reducing access to the ballot for so many eligible Americans. While some proponents of these laws assert they stop voter fraud, there is no evidence to support the claim that such fraud exists in any meaningful way. What we do have, however, are the stories of real people who are being cut out of the political process as a result of them.

On this Election Day, let’s work to make sure that the next Election Day shouldn’t be made harder for voters. You can tell Attorney General Holder that you believe in protecting every citizen’s right to vote by asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate these laws and fully enforce the Voting Rights Act to stop their implementation where necessary.

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