San Francisco – American electioneering has generated a new source of stress and skepticism with a spurt in voter restrictions and poll monitoring tactics that are intended to scare the voters off from casting their votes. Voter intimidation is being accomplished, among others, through new voter ID laws, early voting restrictions, threatening billboards which warn, “Voter fraud is a felony,” or others asking for an ID card (while adding in small print that it is not required).
Other tactics include misleading mailers that present the voting date as November 8 rather than November 6, and self-appointed poll watchers who have taken on a vigilante role. On various websites one can find references to the adoption of such tactics, as for instance in Florida, a key swing state, where mailers are being received with incorrect voting information. There is calculated targeting of misinformation: Spanish-speaking voters in Arizona’s Maricopa County have been told to vote two days late, whereas English-speaking voters have been informed of the correct date.
Beginning in 2011, supported by Republicans, whose standing is tentative among immigrant minorities, a majority of states have moved forward with legislative provisions to regulate voter registration and ID requirements and early voting arrangements. Even though some of the laws have been annulled by judicial decisions, the dampening effect of such actions on voting behavior remains a concern.
By some estimates, over five million voters could be affected by voter ID laws and limits on voter registration and early voting. Countless others will choose to skip going to the polls entirely because of confusing or misleading information, or will turn away when confronted by vigilante poll watching groups such as the Tea Party-linked “True the Vote,” which has committed to send a million observers to polling sites on Election Day. Though poll monitoring is a valid function, it becomes suspicious and menacing when it is left to private groups with high stakes in winning the election.
While it is not yet possible to quantify what impact these laws will have on voter turnout or to hypothesize the number of citizens who lack ID and would have voted in the absence of a voter ID law, or estimate the number of those who will stay away from voting on account of confusing messages about election dates or subtle threats of prosecution, there is reasonable basis to fear that the scaled-up anti-voting measures could have an (or even decisive) impact on the 2012 election results.
The Brennan Center for Justice has called the wave of laws “the biggest rollback in voting rights since the Jim Crow era.” Others view these laws as counterproductive (even non sequitur) in that they seek to correct a problem that does not exist! The claim that the above measures are aimed at tackling voter fraud has been challenged by analysts who report finding little historical evidence of fraud.
According to the ACLU, despite the Department of Justice promising to vigorously prosecute allegations of voter fraud under its 2002 Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative, the federal government obtained only 26 convictions or guilty pleas for fraud between 2002 and 2005. Other studies of voter fraud consistently find that it is exceedingly rare, or as a 2007 study by the Brennan Center noted, “By any measure, voter fraud is extraordinarily rare.”
There is even less evidence of fraudulent voting affecting the outcome of any election. Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine law professor and election law specialist, when commenting to The New Yorker, noted that he found not even a single case since 1980 when an election outcome could plausibly have turned on voter impersonation fraud.
Voter suppression in the US is not new, though it may be more rampant and determined now. It was used extensively in most southern states before the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Traditional voter suppression tactics included the institution of poll taxes and literacy tests aimed mainly at marginalizing the ballot power of African Americans and working class white voters. While voter participation or turnout is not necessarily critical to the outcome of an election, it is, and should remain, a hallmark of a democracy that is alive and kicking.
In the US, voter turnout reportedly is much lower, compared to European nations. Predictably, in a closely contested presidential race the turnout seems to be higher, as in elections where contentious social and economic issues are at stake. According to Wikipedia, the voter turnout rate in 1860, when the anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln won the election, was the second-highest on record (81.2 percent, second only to 1876, with 81.8 percent).
In contrast, Clinton’s re-election elicited the lowest voter turnout in the United States since 1924. An excessively polarized electorate, coupled with a dead heat race between two presidential contenders, can have a boosting effect on turnout in the 2012 election just as it did in the Bush-Kerry election in 2004, when turnout approximated 60 percent.
As a strong emerging voting bloc, the Indian community in the US has a special obligation to circumvent the voting hurdles and go all out to convey its voice. Supporting one candidate or another is important, but less critical than exercising our right to vote.