That didn't take long. Just months after a big election year that saw big turnout across the South, many state legislatures in the region are moving to pass an array of laws that create new barriers to voting, mostly in the name of combating "voter fraud."
At the top of the list is Georgia -- a site of election controversy last November -- where on May 5, Gov. Sonny Perdue Æ signed a law requiring prospective voters to prove their citizenship. Since Georgia is covered by the Voting Rights Act, the bill will need to be pre-cleared by the Obama Justice Department; if it does, the law will go into effect in 2010.
The debate echoed a similar controversy that Facing South reported on last fall, where Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel "flagged" thousands of voters suspected of being non-citizens, even encouraging Georgia citizens to challenge the citizenship of fellow voters.
This time, the debate is just heated, as the AP reports:
"It's tantamount to a poll tax," said Elise Shore, regional counsel
for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She said
the group was considering a legal challenge if the law clears the
Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, a
top backer, said proof of citizenship is needed to prevent voter fraud.
She expressed confidence the law could withstand a challenge, noting it
was modeled after Arizona's precedent-setting law.
The difference this year is that, since Georgia is covered by the Voting Rights Act, the bill will need
to be pre-cleared by the Obama Justice Department; if it does, the law
will go into effect in 2010.
Bills requiring voters to show special kinds of ID at the polls -- a movement which gained steam in Georgia -- are also spreading throughout the South. A measure died in Tennessee, but just cleared a House committee in Texas. The arguments in the Lone Star state are the same they've been everywhere:
pushing for passage of the voter ID measure, contending it is necessary
to prevent election fraud in Texas. Democrats, on the other hand, argue
there is no evidence of voter impersonation in the state and say the
GOP-led effort is all about suppressing turnout by groups that tend to
vote for Democrats.
A voter ID bill also cleared a Senate panel in South Carolina, with a twist: Knowing Democrats and civil rights groups would fight the measure, the committee added on provisions for a two-week early voting period, which many believe boosts turnout of Democratic constituencies.
Evidence presented at the hearing showed how many would be affected by the ID bill: the state Election Commission found that 13 percent of South Carolina voters -- some 343,000 people -- don't have a driver's license or state ID card.
As noted with Georgia, complicating each case is the future of the Voting Rights Act, particularly Section 5 which demands federal pre-clearance for changes to voting laws in most Southern states. The Supreme Court is currently deliberating over a landmark challenge to Section 5 brought out of Texas.
As the New York Times and others have observed, the Court's line of question during last month's oral arguments strongly hint that Section 5's days may be numbered -- and with it, the federal recourse that voting rights advocates once had in challenging state laws on voting.
Not all Southern states are moving to restrict the vote. North Carolina appears to be an exception to state trend, with a bill that would allow 16 and 17 year olds to "pre-register" for elections (not actually vote). Advocacy groups like Democracy North Carolina note that research shows such programs boost civic involvement and voting among younger voters.
The bill passed unanimously in the N.C. House education committee late last night -- but has to make it onto the chamber calendar soon or it will whither on the vine.
UPDATE: More from North Carolina: There are also efforts underway to expand the state's "Voter Owned Elections," or races that are publicly financed, to include more Council of State races. Here's a dispatch from Democracy North Carolina:
This program eliminates the importance of big contributions, dramatically reduces the potential influence of special interests, increases the diversity of candidates seeking office and puts the focus of elections on voters, not fundraising. [...]
Your actions could make the difference in passing this bill, which builds on the success of 2008's Voter-Owned Elections program for three Council of State offices: Commissioner of Insurance, Superintendent of Public Instruction and State Auditor. This highly successful program gained the voluntary participation of both Democrats and Republicans. The new bill expands that program to include Treasurer, Secretary of State, Commissioner of Labor, Commissioner of Agriculture and Attorney General as funds are available.