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Voting Rights: What's A Reasonable Requirement?


This past week, the Obama administration took aim at a wave of new laws and policies they say will make it harder for some people to vote on Election Day. The state initiatives range from requiring voters to show government-issued I.D. to cutting back on early voting. Supporters of the laws, backed mostly by Republicans, say they are meant to reduce voter fraud. But critics, backed by Democrats, say the measures disproportionately, perhaps intentionally, affect minority voters, a group that supported Barack Obama in 2008.

We're going to jump into this debate with two people who hold opposing views on the issue. In a moment, we'll hear from a supporter of the stricter voting requirements. But first, we turn to the nation's largest civil rights group, the NAACP. That organization says the new laws are unprecedented, coordinated and targeted particularly at a time when minority turnout at the ballot box has increased. And they've gone as far as to petition the U.N. Commissioner on Human Rights to stop what they consider a conscious attempt to block the vote of minorities.

Ben Jealous is the president of the NAACP and he joins us in the studio here.

Welcome, Mr. Jealous.

BEN JEALOUS: Thank you.

CORNISH: To begin, why do you believe that these stricter provisions actually weigh heavily on minority voters in particular? Because some people might think, you know, what's the big deal about having to show I.D. - I.D. you probably already have - at the ballot box.

JEALOUS: Well, first you have to talk about the full breadth of the laws that they've been pushing through. It's not just about voter I.D. They've come after same-day registration, early voting, Sunday voting. They've passed laws like they have in Georgia and in Arizona - registration I.D.s, saying that they will not even process your voter registration form unless a copy of your I.D. is attached.

The point here is to actually suppress, make it harder for people to vote, make it harder for people to register.

CORNISH: When you look, though, in 2008, we had an election with huge voter registration drives and enormous turnout, and turnout in states where there are stricter laws at the ballot for I.D. and these sorts of things. It didn't seem to really stop or suppress minority voters then.

JEALOUS: Well, you had a huge wave turnout.

CORNISH: But people showed their I.D., people did all the things that were required of them, even in states where there were strict laws.

JEALOUS: Forty thousand -- You have seen, in some states, voter participation go up even when you've had an I.D. law in place. Question is, you know, why is Georgia now adopting, you know, a law that in the state of Arizona resulted, in just a few months' period, of 40,000 voter registration forms going in the trash because they don't have an I.D. attached? Why in Florida, where they re-enfranchised formerly incarcerated people in 2000, are they putting it back in place 10 years later? Why is it that we see access to the ballot box attacked in two-thirds of all states in one year?

You look historically, you look presently, and what you see is that when our democracy expands, somebody turns around and tries to contract it. You saw it after the Civil War. You see it now after the election of the first black president. What's the difference between 2000 and 2010? Why would they resurrect one of these horrible laws? I mean, these ex-felon disenfranchisement laws, when you look at their legislative history, when you go back and you read the debate that they had when they were first created, they say explicitly that the purpose of the law is to suppress the black vote. So why would Governor Scott pull it off the shelf 10 years after Charlie Crist got rid of it? The law has the same effect now that it did a hundred years ago. It suppresses the black vote.

You see our democracy expand and then you see it attacked. And that's why we're fighting back.

CORNISH: Ben Jealous, he's the president of the NAACP. He joined us in our Washington studios. Thank you so much.

JEALOUS: Thank you. It's great to be here.

CORNISH: Now to Hans von Spakovsky. He's a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former Justice Department official under President George W. Bush.

Welcome to our studios.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Audie, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So, you're a longtime advocate for some of these restrictions. And can you talk a little bit about how these laws improve election integrity?

SPAKOVSKY: OK. Well, I wouldn't call them restrictions. I think they are measures to ensure the integrity and security of the ballot box. And voter I.D., for example, can prevent people from voting under fictitious names. It can prevent people from double voting who are registered in more than one state. And also, it can prevent people who are in the United States illegally from also voting.

CORNISH: Now, the argument we hear most commonly, especially from Democrats on this issue, is that there isn't evidence of mass voter fraud. It's not widespread. It's not very common.

SPAKOVSKY: I don't disagree that it's not mass. But there's sufficient and enough voter fraud in the United States, certainly that that was one of the reasons why the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's photo I.D. law. You know, they said there's a long history of that in the United States and it can make the difference in a close election.

You know, how much voter fraud are you willing to tolerate? And you have to counter that with the fact that the actual results in the polling place show that the claims that people will be unable to vote have turned out to be untrue. Let's go back to Georgia and Indiana. These are the two states with the strictest photo I.D. laws in the country.

Look, those laws have been now been in place for five years. Not only has the turnout of African-Americans not gone down, it increased dramatically. In fact, Indiana in '08 had the largest increase from a prior election in Democratic turnout of any state in the country.

CORNISH: Now, how do you ensure that these laws are not enforced selectively, that there isn't racial profiling by poll workers, which is essentially the history of different requirements at the polls that the Voting Rights Act sought to prevent?

SPAKOVSKY: We have transparency in our elections and if anything like that were happening, you would immediately find out about it. And if so, you've got a great Voting Rights Act lawsuit to go against the people who've been doing it.

CORNISH: Hans von Spakovsky, he's a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Thank you so much.

SPAKOVSKY: Sure. Thanks for having me on.

CORNISH: One more note, as this debate continues. Attorney General Eric Holder, the nation's top law enforcement officer, has promised extra scrutiny for the new voting laws in order to maintain civil rights protections. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.