Florida Republican leaders have tried to sell voting changes they passed last spring as a mere attempt to thwart fraud. But as a dozen other states have joined the campaign — nearly all Republican-controlled — it appears to be an orchestrated effort to dampen turnout among Democratic-leaning constituencies in the 2012 presidential contest. Now, Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, is asking the Justice Department to launch an investigation. In the interest of protecting all Americans' right to vote, regardless of party, an investigation is warranted.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed Florida's 2011 voting law changes after they were passed on a straight party-line vote over vigorous civic group and Democratic opposition. The new law put so many rules and penalties on voter registration activity that Florida's League of Women Voters announced it was dropping its registration drives after 72 years. And now in New Smyrna Beach, a high school civics teacher faces potential fines after helping her students preregister to vote without following the new law's strictures. Other changes include tougher voter identification requirements and reductions in early voting.
The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has looked at Florida's laws and those in other states and estimates more than 5 million potential voters could be adversely affected. As Nelson points out in his letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, that's more than "all the registered voters in any of 42 states in this country."
The swath of new state laws doesn't affect all voters equally. The Brennan Center found "substantial evidence" that Florida's new election law — and that of other states — will make it "far more difficult" for minorities to vote than whites, a blatant violation of federal voting rights law.
Supporters of the new laws claim they are necessary to prevent voter fraud and to keep illegal immigrants from voting. But that is a ruse. The Justice Department under President George W. Bush made voting fraud a priority. Yet a study of a three-year period between 2002 and 2005 found only 38 voting fraud cases prosecuted, with 14 of those ending in dismissals or acquittals.
The big electoral problem isn't voter fraud; it's a system now designed to keep some Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote.