"Astonishing." "Remarkable." "Sinister." Those are words that come up again and again when confronting the wave of voter-identification laws that has recently swept through more than 30 Republican-dominated state legislatures. The measures sound innocuous enough: When a voter shows up on Election Day, he or she must present valid photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
The goal, proponents say, is to combat in-person voter fraud—claiming to be someone you're not and entering a vote in their name. But study after study, including an exhaustive investigation by Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has found almost no evidence that in-person voter fraud occurs. Culling through 5,000 documents over 10 weeks, the News21 project found only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud since 2000: about one case for every 15 million eligible voters.
What's more, requiring state or federally issued ID at the polls has been repeatedly shown by independent analyses to impose a disproportionate burden on the poor, the elderly, students and people of color.
"We've heard it time and time again; it really is a solution in search of a problem," said Stephen Spaulding, Washington, D.C.-based staff counsel for the nonprofit citizen's lobby group Common Cause.
"We do have election-administration problems in the country—with machines breaking down, assuring that votes are counted accurately—and we need to focus our attention there," he said. "This threatens everyone's right to a free and fair election."
If anyone with "restrictive" or "strict" comes close to being a symbol of what's wrong photo-ID laws, it's Viviette Applewhite. At 93 years old, Applewhite is an African-American Pennsylvanian who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and has cast her ballot in almost every election since the 1960s.
Her purse was stolen years ago, and with it her Social Security card. And, since she was adopted as a child, the name on her birth certificate differs from that used on other official documents. Her adoption itself lacked any kind of record.
Under Pennsylvania's voter-ID law, which was passed in March 2012 and has since become a legal lighting rod in the battle over voting rights, Applewhite couldn't obtain the required identification to participate at the polls. Her case, and the case of others similarly affected by the law, was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the D.C.-based law firm Arnold & Porter. The lawsuit, which alleged that the law violated Pennsylvania's constitution by denying citizens the right to vote, was denied a preliminary injunction and bounced on appeal from district court to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which sent the challenge back to the lower court for reconsideration.
On Oct. 2, Robert Simpson, a judge for the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, granted the preliminary injunction, allowing people like Applewhite to vote in the 2012 election without photo ID and without having to cast a provisional ballot—a measure that in some states allows non-ID holders to vote, but which requires them to return to the polling place after the election to confirm their identity.
Barring any further litigation, Pennsylvania voters will be required to present photo ID in future elections, but, for now, Applewhite and others in her situation will be free to vote. In fact, as the case was being appealed in August, Applewhite received an ID using her 20-year-old Medicare card, proof of address and a state document affirming her name and Social Security number (according to media reports, the process also required her to take two buses to the licensing office).
That's a lot of hassle to exercise a right that Applewhite has enjoyed for 60 years, but she's not alone. According to best estimates, strict voter-ID laws could effectively disenfranchise millions of voters if adopted nationwide.
According to figures from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, as many as 11 percent of adult U.S. citizens do not have any form of government-issued photo identification, accounting for more than 21 million people. Among that group, 18 percent of citizens 65 years of age or older don't have government-issued photo ID (more than 6 million seniors), and, based on 2000 U.S. Census figures, more than 5.5 million African-American adults lack photo ID—a full 25 percent of eligible black voters. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens, regardless of ethnicity, age or gender, who make less than $35,000 "are more than twice as likely to lack current government-issued photo identification as those earning more than $35,000 a year," the Brennan Center reported, meaning at least 15 percent of voting-age Americans in the lowincome bracket lack valid ID.
On top of that, the Brennan Center found in its survey that as many as 7 percent of voting-age citizens (more than 13 million adults) don't have ready access to documents proving that they're citizens, making the process of getting valid ID all the more complicated.
"These ID laws, and this notion that they don't impose a cost on citizens is farcical," said Common Cause's Spaulding. "We know that, in some states, it costs money to get documents and get an ID. There are a number of voters who are in a catch-22; they're 90 years old, they were born at home with a midwife and they don't have a birth certificate. There's the expense of getting those documents; there's the expense—especially in rural areas—of making the trip to get the ID. This notion that these IDs are free' does not pass the smell test."
But it's on that notion that voter-ID laws have been ruled constitutional.
Indiana's restrictive voter-ID law, which is seen as the test case for similar laws nationwide, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008 because it was found not to be burdensome to voters.
"Clearly that's not the case," Spaulding said.
It doesn't take much analysis to figure out the upshot of proliferating voter-ID requirements: fewer seniors, students, people of color and low-wage earners at the polls. And it doesn't take much to see who would most benefit from a whiter, more middle-age, affluent electorate.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that the legislators carrying these bills are not Democrats," said Lisa Graves, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy.
According to Graves, whose organization has made voting rights a priority issue, this newest push traces its roots to the 1990s and the enactment of the National Voter Registration Act, or "Motor Voter," under President Bill Clinton. The measure did exactly what its name implies: made it easier for voters to register. African-Americans, particularly, registered in high numbers, Graves said, prompting backlash among conservative states.
"In response to that law, Southern states started proposing changes to the laws to make it harder to register. Those bills went nowhere; they were perceived as racist and sort of languished for a number of years," Graves said.
Then came the election of President George W. Bush, "and the right wing started pushing this theme of voter fraud," Graves said. The Bush administration even tried to redirect the voting-rights section of the civil-rights division to push this idea of voter fraud, she added.
"U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn't do enough to assert non-existent voter fraud," Graves said.
Despite pressure from the new Bush administration, strict voter-ID laws remained few and far between, with only Indiana and Georgia enacting restrictive ID measures in 2005. But, Graves said, "these things were bubbling."
When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, it was in large part due to huge voter turnout in cities and among students and African-Americans. Republicans, having lost the White House, also found their party losing ground in state legislatures. According to data compiled by News21, 62 voter-ID bills have been introduced in 37 state legislatures since 2009, with the bulk of the measures introduced or adopted in 2011 and 2012. According to the Brennan Center and News21, a handful of states have active, strict photo-ID laws for voters and more than a dozen others are pending—either hung up in court, awaiting preclearance from the Department of Justice or too recently enacted to be in effect.
"It's remarkable," said Jennie Bowser, Denver-based senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "I've tracked election legislation since late 2000 and everything that happened in Florida, and I've never seen so many states take up a single issue in the absence of a federal mandate."
Graves, meanwhile, fingers the culprit.
"Suddenly the Indiana law was dusted off the shelf and put out there as a national model that every state should be pushing," she said, "and ALEC is behind it."
ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council and has been criticized as nothing less than a shadow lawmaking body that draws its strength from an ocean of corporate money. If the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United can be said to have opened the flood gates to corporate cash in American politics, then ALEC is trying to turn on the flood.
"ALEC isn't simply a think tank or a gathering of lawmakers, it is a corporate-funded operation that pushes a corporate message and a conservative message," said Graves, whose Center for Media and Democracy in July 2011 made public 800 internal documents on its website, AlecExposed.org, proving ALEC's cloaked hand in crafting "model legislation" meant for introduction in statehouses around the country.
"At its core, it is a way to take some of these ideas that a think tank might fancy and operationalize them," she said. "And I use operationalize' very purposefully."
A call to ALEC's spokesperson for this story went unanswered, but the organization's ideological bent is clear enough on its website, which says that ALEC "works to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America's state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public."
Registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501c3 nonprofit, ALEC boasts around 2,000 member legislators—the vast majority being Republicans—who pay a nominal fee for membership, and upwards of 300 corporate and other private-sector members who pony up between $7,000 and $25,000 for the privilege of getting together with sympathetic lawmakers at lavish retreats.
Broken up into task forces focused on various aspects of public policy—from education to civil justice and the environment—ALEC members, both from the public and private sectors, get together and write model bills to be voted on and, if ratified, carried home by ALEC legislators for introduction in their respective states.
The strategy has been successful. ALEC brags on its website that, each year, about 1,000 pieces of ALEC-written or ALEC-inspired model legislation ends up getting introduced in the states, with roughly 20 percent becoming law.
Despite this, and even though the organization has been active for nearly 40 years—it was established in 1973 by arch conservative Paul Weyrich, who also co-founded the Heritage Foundation—ALEC has remained largely under the radar. Nonetheless, its impact on policy in the states reads like a greatest hits compilation of the most controversial bills in recent history: from changes to U.S. gun laws like the Florida "stand your ground" legislation made infamous by the Trayvon Martin shooting (a measure that was crafted with help from the National Rifle Association, a prominent ALEC member) to state-based efforts to overturn or circumvent the Affordable Care Act and recent measures limiting teacher-union powers and handing portions of student instruction over to for-profit education companies. Even Arizona's hotly contested immigration law—SB 1070—started life as an ALEC-approved "model" bill.
"There's a whole set of bills that are advancing that corporate agenda to privatize prisons, privatize education—and by privatize,' I mean profitize," Graves said.