TOPICS > Politics

How Will New Voter Registration Laws Affect 2012 Election?

December 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Millions of potential voters may not be able to cast votes in 2012 after a dozen states put new restrictions in place this year. Gwen Ifill discusses the impact the new restrictions could have on the upcoming elections with New York University's Keesha Gaskins and Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, the Obama Justice Department weighs in on the debate over new voting laws. We begin with some background.

Millions of potential voters may not be able to cast votes in 2012, after a dozen states put new restrictions in place this year. Six states passed laws that limit early voting. And eight states will now require voters to present state-issued photo identification cards in order to cast a ballot. Previously, only Indiana and Georgia had strict photo I.D. requirements.

The Obama Justice Department is now objecting to the new laws. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke last night in Austin, Texas, at the Presidential Library of Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: We need election systems that are free from fraud, discrimination, and partisan influence and that are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country.

GWEN IFILL: Republicans who control the statehouses, where many of the changes became law, say they are designed to prevent fraud. Supporters protested last night outside Holder’s Texas speech.

PAM JOYCE: We’re not here to suppress anybody’s vote. We just want to make sure that the people who are voting are legitimate voters, they’re not dead people that are voting, that they’re not Mickey Mouse voting.

GWEN IFILL: Wisconsin’s law has already been challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Justice Department is reviewing whether the new laws in Texas and South Carolina violate civil rights provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

We get two different views now on the impact the new laws could have on the upcoming presidential campaign. Keesha Gaskins is senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. And Hans Von Spakovsky is manager of the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation. He served in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration.

Keesha Gaskins, how extensive is the evidence that there is actually voter suppression going on through these new laws?

KEESHA GASKINS, Brennan Center for Justice: There’s plenty of evidence that there’s voter suppression going on.

We know that there are millions of voters in this country who lack government-issued photo I.D. And we know that’s at least 3.2 million voters in states across this country that have imposed these new photo I.D. laws. That’s in addition to the over one million voters who will be impacted by the changes to early voting and absentee voting rules and the other 500,000 voters who are impacted by changes to citizen registration drives and other similar laws.

We know that — we know because of voting patterns in 2008. We know because of dozens of studies that reflect these statistics. And we know that, ultimately, up to five million Americans may be potentially restricted from voting or making it more difficult for them to access the polls.

GWEN IFILL: Hans Von Spakovsky, part of the reasoning for these new laws is that there’s voter fraud that needs to be protected against. We just heard the woman say that in the piece. What evidence do we have to support that?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY, Heritage Foundation: Well, look, there’s been several books written. I’ve done case studies on specific incidents of voter fraud.

Mississippi, where the voters overwhelmingly just approved a voter I.D. referendum, in 2007, the judgment won a lawsuit there, blatant voter discrimination by local officials. And there was evidence in the cases in the court decision about the defendant in the case telling a young woman to go into the polling place and vote under any name because nobody would question it because they don’t have voter I.D.

A local county member of the NAACP in April in Tunica County, Mississippi, was sentenced to five years in prison for voter fraud. There’s enough of it to make a difference in close elections. That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s photo I.D. law.

GWEN IFILL: Now, you’re talking about anecdotal evidence, and Keesha Gaskins is talking about actual, she says, numbers. Is there — are they even — equivalent, the allegations of suppression vs. fraud?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Look, the Brennan Center keeps touting these numbers. They basically made them up out of thin air. They have no evidence of that.

In fact, they have been making these claims and predictions since 2006. We can see actual results. These photo I.D. laws have been in place in Georgia and Indiana for five years. They have had two federal elections. They have had local elections also. Turnout in those states, particularly of African-Americans, went up, increased significantly.

And in the lawsuits that were filed in both states against those laws, the very same claims were made, that hundreds of thousands of people would be unable to vote because of photo I.D. One of the reasons those cases were dismissed was because the court said specifically the plaintiffs were unable to produce a single witness, anyone who would be unable to vote because of these photo I.D. laws.

GWEN IFILL: Keesha Gaskins, obviously, I’m going to give you the opportunity to defend your work. And I also want you to answer the question of what’s wrong with asking someone to prove that they are who they are when they go to the voting booth. I have to pull out an I.D. when I do most anything these days.

KEESHA GASKINS: Sure. There’s a couple — there are so many points I want to make right now. First, we know that most people have photo I.D., but we also know that 10 percent of the country doesn’t have — doesn’t have I.D. laws in place.

We know that people are going to be impacted by these laws. And when you look at something like saying — getting on an airplane, I don’t have a Constitution right to fly to Cabo for vacation. I do have a constitutional right to vote.

And these laws are putting barriers between American citizens and their right to vote and the ability to access the polls.

GWEN IFILL: What about your ability to defend your numbers that Mr. Von Spakovsky was just questioning?

KEESHA GASKINS: The numbers that we have are fully defensible. They have been supported not only by our own studies, but by dozens of other studies, including studies by former Secretary of State Baker, by former President Jimmy Carter.

There’s no question that we have — our studies have been defended. We have defended our studies specifically against the claims made by Mr. Von Spakovsky — Spakovsky — excuse me.

The fact is, the numbers are real, and these numbers represent real people. They represent real voters. Certainly, you can always pull out anecdotal evidence. And we certainly don’t believe that voter fraud should ever be tolerated.

But in terms of order of magnitude and what we’re really talking about here is, we’re really talking about laws that really don’t implicate or change or affect any of the examples even given by Mr. Spakovsky here or in most other cases.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Von Spakovsky…

KEESHA GASKINS: And these laws aren’t going to solve the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me.

Mr. Von Spakovsky, I do want to ask you about some of the solutions which have been presented. The attorney general has talked about automatic voter registration. There have been — some states have said they should just — we should roll back early voting and take that out of the process, because that is creating a bigger problem.

What — one of these things, you favor. One of them, you don’t. Why not?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Well, you know, the attorney general said we ought to have automatic registration. And he said we should do it from existing databases.

Well, the problem with that is, no one’s ironed out quite yet how to do that without registering ineligible — ineligible people. And I will give you a quick example. One of the proposals that has been made is to register to vote automatically everyone who has a driver’s license, so use DMV records to do that.

Well, the problem with that is that if you’re in the United States legally, you can get a driver’s license in all 50 states. So if you automatically register everyone on DMV, you’re going to be automatically registering tens of thousands of people who are not United States citizens. And no one quite has figured out how you resolve that particular problem.

GWEN IFILL: So you’re saying the state-issued voter I.D. you’re talking about would be beyond a driver’s license?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: Well, I was talking about what the attorney general was saying, that people should be automatically registered and not have to go through the registration process.

GWEN IFILL: I understand that. I understand that. But in the states which are rolling back these — are toughening these voter I.D. requirements, you’re saying you’re asking for more than just a driver’s license, if you say the driver’s licenses are a problem?

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: No, no.

The states — the states have provided things like driver’s licenses and other government-issued I.D.s that they say are sufficient. And I think those statutes are fine. Every state that has passed one of these laws has also provided for a free photo I.D.

And that’s why, for example, Congressman Artur Davis — I mean, he’s a Democrat, former member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He recently came out with an editorial saying that photo I.D. is a good idea, that it’s needed based on the elections he had to run in Alabama and the fraud that he saw when he was there.

And that’s why, for example, in Rhode Island . . .

GWEN IFILL: OK.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: . . . the Democrats approved the photo I.D. law there.

GWEN IFILL: I do want to get Keesha Gaskins back in this.

To what degree is this a problem which can be fixed by changing the way the laws exist now?

KEESHA GASKINS: I think when we talk about changing the — when we look at the laws the way they’re written, they’re not fine, right?

These laws are written in a very partisan way to carve out very specific voters. When we look at Texas, for example, Texas photo I.D. laws do not permit an individual to use their veterans I.D. to vote, doesn’t permit an individual to use a student I.D. to vote. But it does permit individuals with concealed carry gun licenses to vote.

In fact, these laws are not these uniform, neutral laws, as are suggested. They are written in a very specific way to exclude specific populations from having access to the polls. And that’s what makes them suppressive.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: I’m sorry, but that is just simply not true.

The reason that Texas doesn’t include a student I.D. is for the simple reason, something that came up in the presidential race, because colleges in Texas not only allow illegal aliens to attend school. They provide them with in-state tuition. In Georgia, they allow a student I.D. to be used, and that’s because they don’t have that same provision in their law.

GWEN IFILL: I’m afraid — I’m afraid we’re going to have to continue this conversation at another time.

Mr. Hans Von Spakovsky from the Heritage Foundation, Keesha Gaskins from the Brennan Center, thank you both very much.

KEESHA GASKINS: Thank you.