To ID or not to ID

Tim Knight's latest blog on the American Presidential Election. Tim is working as an assistant to the Regional Field Director for President Obama in Fairfax County, Virginia.

In the 2008 election, the Democrats’ success in turning out the African American vote was remarkable. For the first time, the turnout figure for the African American population (65%), rivalled that of White Americans (65%). This time round, the party has once again been involved in an enormous effort to make sure that their supporters go to the polls on November 6th. However, as with everything in this extremely divisive election, even an issue as apparently straightforward as the act of voting, and more specifically voter identification, is extremely politicised and bitterly contested.

This has been a hotly contested battleground for many years. The argument is divided roughly on party lines. Many Republicans claim that electoral fraud is a major problem in American elections, and one that could be potentially decisive in an election as close as this. On the other side, Democrats argue that the problem of electoral fraud is vastly overstated.  Lorraine Minnite, the author of ‘The Myth of Voter Fraud’, found that in 2005 more Americans were prosecuted by the Federal Government for breaking statutes related to migratory birds than for electoral fraud. There is a concern that stricter voter ID laws, such as a requirement for voters to bring photographic identification with them to the polls, would disenfranchise whole swathes of the population, particularly those from poor or ethnic minority backgrounds.

True the Vote, a non-profit organisation affiliated with the Tea Party whose stated aim is “…equipping citizens to take a stand for free and fair elections”, are at the forefront of the campaign against voter fraud. True the Vote has been busy in the last few months, attempting to ‘clean up’ voter registration rolls by mounting legal challenges against the registration of those they believe are dead or do not live at their listed address. However, there are many who believe that True the Vote’s efforts may belie a desire to prevent potential Democrat supporters from voting. Last month, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings initiated an investigation into True the Vote. In a letter to founder Catherine Engelbrecht, Cummings complained that “…an effort to challenge voter registrations by the thousands without any legitimate basis may be evidence of illegal voter suppression. If these efforts are intentional, politically motivated and widespread across multiple states, they could amount to a criminal conspiracy to deny legitimate voters their constitutional rights.”

This is a view shared by Bill Clinton, who believes that the efforts of True the Vote and others amount to the most serious attempts at voter suppression “…since we got rid of the poll tax and other Jim Crow burdens on voting”.

In Virginia, voters are not required to bring photographic identification to the polls, but electoral law states that those who arrive at the booth without an acceptable form of ID are entitled to cast their ballot, but their vote will not be officially counted unless they return to the polling station with ID within a week of election day. With this in mind, the Democrats are setting up information stands at each polling station, and will be helping anyone who voted without ID to return to the polls before the deadline.

With the polls as close as they are, the issue of electoral fraud could once again rear its head in the event of a recount. Interestingly, Hans von Spakovsky, a Republican lawyer who sits on the advisory board of True the Vote is also the vice-chairman of the electoral board of Fairfax County, and will play a key role in any post election debates. In a recent interview with the New Yorker predicted that this year’s elections could be even more chaotic than the 2000 election, which were marred by legal wranglings over ‘hanging chads’ in Florida. Both sides have readied armies of lawyers, and are ready to take the fight to the court room if necessary.


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