New Voting Laws Disenfranchise Minorities and Homeless

By Ellen Kriz

An alarming trend has swept the country as states repeatedly introduce legislation to restrict the voting process. Many of these laws require voters to present a photo I.D. issued by the government or proof of citizenship. Currently, 11% of the population does not have proper photo identification; that is over 21 million voters according to the New York University Brennan Center. When it comes to the merits of democracy and equal voting rights, this is a huge demographic to lose. Other laws make it difficult to even register. Some of the barriers to registration include the elimination of same-day registration and voting, and harsh restrictions on groups that organize voter registration drives. For example, Florida passed a law which required advocacy groups to submit all registrations within ten days or face a $250 fine, and if a single registration is lost, the organization has to pay $5,000. The League of Women Voters in Florida has already stated that it will no longer be able to organize registration drives due to this measure. Overall, about 180 restrictive bills have been introduced in the legislatures of 41 states (NYU Brennan Center). Voting rights could be severely altered on a national scale if these bills continue to pass.

Ohio has been one of the most active states to limit voters just in time for 2012 election. Ohio eliminated the week-long period in which voters could register and cast the ballot on the same day. It also recently passed a bill to reduce the hours for early voting opportunities. These restrictions were overturned after community groups gathered enough signatures to allow voters the chance to weigh in on these issues.  Early voting is essential in big cities like Cleveland where the polls are often crowded even with allowances for early votes. The Secretary of State limited the number of hours Ohioans are allowed to cast an early ballot.  Consider Northeast Ohio in general with its large densely concentrated population compared to the rest of Ohio, and it is one of the reasons that Ohio is a swing state. How will the elections be affected if thousands of voters are unable to cast their votes this year? If the effects are significant in Ohio alone, imagine how the national landscape will change with the efforts of other states. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 79% of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency will be altered by changes in the voting process in November.

Why have states so vehemently pursued these measures? The supporters of this movement claim that they are attempting to limit voter fraud to make the elections fairer and more consistent.  “One of the things, I think, that was really going wrong was the opportunity for local elections to be displaced or stolen, by just people coming in and moving their address,” Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley told CNN.  The problem with their reasoning is that the new restrictions disproportionally affect minority populations, making it difficult for African-Americans, Latinos, students, and the elderly to vote. “It’s true that there is some voter fraud in this country … but there is no credible evidence that there is any systematic in-person voter fraud. It’s not a serious problem,” Richard Hasen a political science and law professor at the University of California-Irvine told CNN.

Flawed logic, however, is not the only factor at play, here; many suspect that the laws are being introduced with discriminatory intent. The populations that are being limited the most are usually more inclined to vote for a liberal candidate, and because of the timing and widespread scope of this legislation, some suspect that Republicans may be trying to manipulate the outcome of the coming election. Speculative political motivations aside, though, low-income, minority, and other disadvantaged populations are being disenfranchised as new regulations are put into place.

The homeless populations in particular will experience more difficulty voting than ever if these laws continue to pass the state legislatures. In order to obtain a valid state photo I.D., they have to present birth certificates or similar identification. It is unlikely that those documents have survived housing instability or confiscations by police raids. Furthermore, it is too expensive to obtain a new certificate once the original is lost, and many states require identification to replace identification. The reduction of early voting periods also poses an unreasonable barrier to homeless people who want to cast a ballot. Early voting is especially crucial for the homeless because it makes transportation barriers easier to overcome. Finally, ex-felons in Iowa and Florida have been disenfranchised which may affect the homeless population more than others. Individuals who cannot find shelter often violate certain city ordinances. These are usually misdemeanors, but it is a felony in some states to miss a court date, and it can be more difficult for homeless individuals to make it to court without reliable transportation (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty).

All of these restrictions might violate the Voting Rights Act which protects the interests of minority populations. Although it is not illegal under the act to restrict the impoverished, minorities often experience the most poverty; they comprise about 59% of the homeless population, and African-Americans alone account for 45% (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty). This is just one way to challenge the restrictions with federal law, but it should be obvious that minorities and the poor deserve to be fairly represented in a true democracy.

That is why NEOCH is trying to educate the public about the right to vote and pass out as many voter registration forms as possible to those who may have difficulty registering in Cuyahoga County. It is essential to challenge the changes that are taking place to ensure that the voices of our most vulnerable populations are heard.

Editor’s Note:  For more information about the new voting laws see http://www.brennancenter.org  or http://nlchp.org

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle Cleveland ,Ohio October 2012 NEOCH