If there's anyone who approximates a symbol of what's wrong with what are referred to as "restrictive" or "strict" voter ID laws, it's Viviette Applewhite. At 93 years old, Applewhite is an African American from Pennsylvania 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. What's more, since she was adopted as a child, the name on her birth certificate differed 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 lighting rod in the battle over voting rights, it appeared that Applewhite would not be able to 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 state's voter ID 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 October 2, Judge Robert Simpson 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 requirement that in the some states allows non-ID holders to vote, but then forces 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 this year Applewhite and others in her situation will be free to vote as they always have. In fact, as the case was being appealed in August, Applewhite received an ID using her twenty-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 enjoyed for sixty 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 Lisa Graves, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, an organization that has made voting rights a priority issue, this newest push to limit the right to vote 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," Graves said. "Those bills went nowhere; they were perceived as racist ... and sort of languished for a number of years."
Then came the election of President George W. Bush, "and the right wing started pushing this theme of voter fraud," Graves continued. 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. "US attorneys were fired because they didn't do enough to assert nonexistent voter fraud," Graves noted.
Yet despite pressure from the new Bush administration, strict voter ID laws remained few, 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 the News21 project at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, 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 for Justice at New York University 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; it's 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 floodgates to corporate cash in American politics, then ALEC is trying to turn on the flood.