Vote fraud myths meet voting rights reality

    Before she was allowed to register and vote for the first time in Franklin County, North Carolina, Rosanell Eaton had to read the entire preamble to the U.S. Constitution out loud in front of three men in the county courthouse.

    Eaton is black. The three men testing her were white. The time was the early 1940s, when trying to vote was difficult and even dangerous for African-Americans. Contrived "literacy tests" were one of the milder obstacles that were deployed to suppress the black vote in the South.

    Now 93, Eaton is back in court. This summer she is the lead plaintiff in one of two lawsuits brought by the North Carolina NAACP and others to prevent her state from raising a batch of new hurdles to voting in this November's midterm elections.

    That lawsuit is one of two filed this month against a package of voter inconveniences signed into law by North Carolina's Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. The new law includes cutbacks in early voting, new limits on voter registration, less poll worker assistance to voters and new voting requirements such as photo identification.

    For example, Eaton fears she could run afoul of a new state requirement beginning in 2016 to show a photo ID at the polling station. The name on her driver's license does not match that on her voter registration card.

    That's not an unusual problem but, like the old literacy tests, the new rules weigh statistically and suspiciously to the disadvantage of people like her -- non-whites, low-income and the elderly, among others.

    Similar impediments to minority voting have been enacted or debated in more than 30 other states in a mostly Republican-led drive that picked up steam after President Barack Obama's first election.

    "What's so racist about asking for photo ID?" proponents of photo ID's reasonably ask. Not much, except when such requirements are biased, burdensome, ineffective, deceptive and elitist.

    In fact, if Republicans really want to catch and stop election fraud, they're barking up the wrong polling place, various independent studies show. Instead of focusing on voter impersonation at polling places, they should be looking at absentee ballots.

    That was the advice given, for example, by the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform that convened after Florida's presidential election debacle in 2000. "Absentee ballots," said their 2005 report, "remain the largest source of potential voter fraud."

    Or as Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, observed in a 2004 voting rights case, "Absentee voting is to voting in person as a take-home exam is to a proctored one."

    Nevertheless, the new wave of Republican pursuers of vote fraud seldom mentions absentee ballots. Maybe that's because, as a number of experts have noted, absentee ballots tend to be used more often by Republicans than Democrats.

    And it's also fair to say that the negative impact of photo-ID requirements may be exaggerated, too. As Politifact reports, a 2013 report by the Census Bureau confirmed that the African-American voting rate in 2012 (66.2 percent) surpassed the white voting rate (64.1 percent), even in states that had the toughest photo-ID requirements.

    Of course, it didn't hurt that President Barack Obama was on the ballot. Besides, much of the black turnout may have been spurred by backlash against widespread reports of Republican voter-suppression efforts. Some problems ironically solve themselves, but eternal vigilance is still price of voting rights, among other freedoms.

    Justice Department lawsuits this summer and fall in Texas and North Carolina mark the first tests of voting rights since the Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder decision last year gutted key provisions of the 1965 law. Those provisions required "preclearance" by the Justice Department before any changes could be made to election procedures in states that have long histories of racial discrimination.

    Chief Justice John Roberts' majority opinion discarded those provisions as "based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, compared that reasoning to "throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."

    We'll see. Justice Department lawyers can now present witnesses like Rosanell Eaton to say whether the "40 year-old facts" are still relevant today. I wish they weren't, but in many ways they still are.

    E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

(C) 2014 Clarence Page

14-7-20