The Pulse: The real mischief at the polls

States say they're targeting voter fraud. But look whose votes are targeted.

Posted: October 09, 2011

That there is a nationwide effort under way to move the goalposts for the 2012 presidential election is undeniable. The various initiatives have one thing in common: Each would hinder President Obama's reelection. Coincidence? I think not.

Pursuant to new rules, several states will now require photo IDs or proof of citizenship from voters (and in some cases, from those registering to vote). Some are making it more difficult to carry out voter-registration drives. Others will reduce popular early or absentee voting opportunities.

In Pennsylvania, pending legislation would convert the presidential election process from a winner-take-all approach to a proportional one. If the proposed system had been in place in 2008, Obama would have had a net gain of just one electoral vote, as opposed to the 21 he did earn.

I recently interviewed the president and asked him about the contemplated change here and the other efforts across the country.

"With respect to Pennsylvania, the people of Pennsylvania will ultimately decide how they want to allocate their electoral votes, and I'll leave that to them," he said.

"I will say that my big priority is making sure that as many people are participating in our democracy as possible. Some of these moves in some of the other states that we've seen - trying to make it tougher to vote, restricting ballot access, making it hard on seniors, making it hard on young people - I think that's a big mistake."

The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law has calculated how big that mistake could be. In a report issued last month, the center found that in states that have chosen to require IDs or proof of citizenship, restricted voter-registration efforts and reduced early voting will account for 171 electoral votes - 63 percent of the total 270 needed to win the White House.

Taken together, the center has estimated that more than five million voters could be affected. How significant is that? In 2000, the popular-vote margin between George W. Bush and Al Gore was 543,895, while Bush won over John Kerry by 3,012,166 votes four years later.

These moves are largely unprecedented, according to Michael Waldman, the Brennan Center's executive director. "At the very least, they mark the most significant step backward on voting in several decades," he said. "Throughout the past century, we have steadily increased access to the ballot. This is the first time I'm aware of during that time that states have moved decisively to make it harder for many people to vote."

Who stands to suffer most? According to the report, young people, minorities, and low-income voters - essentially the constituencies most responsible for the president's election - will be most affected.

Consider the impact on minority voters in just one swing state, Florida, where the report notes that African Americans and Hispanics "are more than twice as likely to register to vote through community-based voter registration drives as white voters." A quarter of the Sunshine State's African American voters, meanwhile, don't have a valid photo ID that they would need to cast a ballot.

The report continued: "New restrictions on early voting will also have their biggest impact on people of color. Florida ended early voting on the last Sunday before Election Day. In the 2008 general election in Florida, 33.2 percent of those who voted early on the last Sunday before Election Day were African American and 23.6 percent were Hispanic, whereas African Americans constituted just 13.4 percent of all early voters for all early voting days, and Hispanics just 11.6 percent."

Some will argue that shenanigans on election day do indeed take place and warrant rule changes. "Vote early and vote often" is more than a joking refrain in certain neighborhoods. Still, the question is whether these changes are truly contemplated to rein in misbehavior, or to bank on a few, sporadic reports of misconduct to mask an effort to suppress the president's vote.

I can't help but think of the now-infamous Election Day 2008 incident outside the old Richard Allen Homes at 12th Street and Fairmount Avenue.

Recall that two members of the New Black Panther Party stationed themselves in front of the polling place there, which is in the fourth voting division of the 14th Ward. That they were up to no good I have no doubt. But was it their intention to suppress the votes of those who would support John McCain? I seriously doubt it. This seemed more like a stunt to get a reality-TV show. Consider that these two men selected a voting division in which 84 of the 1,535 voters registered were Republicans.

Not exactly a locale where an African American running for president would seem to need their help.

I think the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department should have reviewed and prosecuted that case. But these sorts of one-offs are hardly worth the conspiracy theories that have relentlessly bounded across the Internet since November 2008.

Nor are they grounds for the scope of electoral changes being implemented across the country.

"It all comes at a time when there should be consensus, commonsense steps to make it easier for people to vote and have their ballots accurately counted," Brennan noted.

Contact Michael Smerconish

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