Voting Rights Fight Continues in 2013

April 25, 2013

Ahead of the 2012 election, there was an unprecedented wave of restrictive voting legislation in states across the country. In 2013, state lawmakers continue to introduce measures that would make it harder for eligible Americans to vote. So far, Virginia and Arkansas have passed laws requiring photo identification to vote, and yesterday, Tennessee passed a measure to make its current voter ID law even stricter, forbidding citizens from using library cards, student ID cards, and municipal photo IDs to vote. Other states have introduced bills that would not only implement or tighten photo ID requirements, but also scale back voter registration and early voting opportunities, restrict the right to vote for those with past criminal convictions, encumber student voting rights, and remove eligible citizens from the voter rolls. The good news is, some of these bills have already failed, and others are highly unlikely to pass. Pending bills in North Carolina and Ohio, however, present some of the most egregious examples of continued attempts to restrict the vote.

North Carolina has been a hotbed of restrictive voting bills, including H.B. 589, a bill proposing a strict photo ID requirement that passed the House yesterday and now moves to the Senate. But state lawmakers are keeping several irons in the fire, also introducing S.B. 721, an omnibus voting bill that creates a photo ID requirement, reduces the early voting period by a week, cuts Sunday voting, and eliminates same-day voter registration. The photo ID component alone will cost the state millions of dollars to implement. It requires the state to launch voter education efforts and provide free IDs to the more than 300,000 registered voters who do not already have acceptable ID. This new burden would be exacerbated by the concurrent reduction in early voting and elimination of same-day registration. The state’s popular early voting program helps alleviate long lines and the burden on poll workers on Election Day. Likewise, North Carolina’s same-day registration increases voter turnout and reduces the number of provisional ballots, which consequently reduces costs for election officials.

S.B. 721 would also eliminate automatic restoration of voting rights for those previously convicted of a felony. Instead, those with past criminal convictions who have completed all terms of their sentence would have to wait five years before they may file a petition to have their rights restored. Even then, restoration is conditioned upon unanimous approval by the Board of Elections, as well as two affidavits from registered voters attesting to the applicant’s moral character. This provision would continue punishing those who have paid their debt to society, sending the wrongheaded message that voting is a privilege for the “deserving” rather than a right guaranteed to all citizens.

As if that weren’t enough, North Carolina is also targeting the student vote with S.B. 667. Students have a constitutional right to register and vote at their college address, yet this bill would penalize students and their parents for the exercise of that right. Under S.B. 667, parents would be barred from listing their children as dependents on state tax forms if they register to vote at a different address. North Carolina grants tax deductions from $2,000 to $2,500 per child dependent — a significant consideration for families under tough financial circumstances. Students may be caught having to choose between voting where they live or helping their families secure a tax break. Students should not have to make this kind of calculus when it comes to the fundamental right to vote.

The affront to student voting doesn’t end there: Ohio legislators introduced a substitute budget bill, Sub. H.B. 59, which would also make it harder for students to vote in their college communities. Students attending Ohio’s public colleges or universities can request a letter or utility bill from the school that can be used as proof of residency for voting purposes. The budget bill would require these schools to charge in-state tuition to students who receive these documents. This threatened revenue loss creates a substantial disincentive for schools to provide these letters and utility bills, and makes it increasingly difficult for Ohio’s students to prove residency and vote in the state.

After an election plagued by long lines, inadequate voting machines, and confusion at the polls, the bills in North Carolina and Ohio, which would increase the burden and inconvenience upon voters, poll workers, and election officials alike, simply defy common sense. Fortunately, these restrictive bills are becoming increasingly outnumbered as more and more states seek to expand voting rights and improve the Election Day experience. According to a new Brennan Center analysis, more than twice as many bills to improve elections are pending across the country. These reforms, such as modernizing registration and expanding early voting, are long overdue, and imperative if we are to live up to the promise of our democracy.

Photo by kate.gardiner.