The ascendancy of militant Republican majorities across the nation following the 2010 midterm elections has produced an onslaught of legislative initiatives advancing corporate interests by dismembering voting rights, workers’ rights, civil rights, environmental protection and the public sector. The size and scope of these efforts is unprecedented. Their cumulative impact on voters, workers, minorities, the environment and our democracy threaten to rival (and reverse) some of the hard-won achievements of the progressive movement of the early 20th century and the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.
The current legislative offensive is the bitter fruit of a nearly half-century-long ideological project designed to roll back historic reforms of the New Deal, and in some cases even the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Its avatars have been reactionary corporate-backed think tanks and lobbying groups tied together by a narrow, rigid, anti-government ideological orthodoxy.
Perhaps no group’s influence on the present miasma has been more pronounced than the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The group was spawned in 1973 by anti-government activists in response to conservative electoral setbacks during the 1960s. Its basic business model was to bring together corporate lobbyists packing campaign cash and malleable legislators in need of same. ALEC’s “model” bills have been the template for a four-front assault, gutting government revenue, attacking unions, pushing privatization schemes, and manipulating voting laws and the electoral process in naked pursuit of partisan political gain. (For more on ALEC, please see the August 1/8, 2011 issue of The Nation).
A recently released study on voting restrictions by the Brennan Center for Justice estimates that some 5 million Americans may be disenfranchised as the result of proposed and recently enacted voter suppression measures. That number exceeds the popular vote victory margin in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, and will almost certainly exceed the victory margin in 2012 as well.
The biggest effect may result from stringent new photo ID laws. Since last November, more than a dozen states have passed such bills; they have been proposed in 34 (including Pennsylvania). Until now, only two states (Indiana and Georgia) had strict voter ID laws in place. According to the Brennan Center, 11 percent of all Americans (more than 21 million citizens) currently lack photo ID. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) has argued that the new laws “will make it harder for millions of disabled, young, minority, rural, elderly, homeless and low-income Americans to vote.”
Many of those most likely to be affected by the new measures come from demographic groups typically supportive of Democratic candidates, but perhaps no state has been more brazen than Texas in the codification of partisan advantage through voter laws. Earlier this year, Governor Rick Perry signed a voter ID law that permits concealed handgun licenses as an acceptable form of voter identification, but not student ID cards.
Given the profusion of legislation, one might think an epidemic of voter fraud was sweeping the land. It is not. Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the ideologically-driven Heritage Foundation conceded that “there are no such claims of massive voting fraud in American elections ” (New York Times 10/3/2011). While cases of bogus names (including Mickey Mouse and the entire roster of the Dallas Cowboys) on voting rolls have been widely publicized, actual cases of voter impersonation are next to non-existent. Apparently it isn’t that easy to show up at a polling place in Dubuque claiming to be Princess Leia of Organa and actually get to vote.
The new wave of voter suppression measures has taken many additional forms. Proof of citizenship laws have already been enacted in Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee; the Brennan Center estimates that 7 percent of Alabama “voters” lack proof of citizenship.
Restrictions on voter registration drives by citizens groups have passed in Texas and Florida, where that state’s League of Women Voters has abandoned its voter registration efforts (which began 72 years ago) in response to registration drive prohibitionism. The Brennan Center estimates that in 2008, at least 176,000 Floridians registered through drives, a number more than 300 times larger than Governor Bush’s official victory margin in the state’s 2000 presidential election.
Other bills curb Election Day registration and early voting. Three states (Florida, Georgia, and Ohio) have cut the early voting period by more than half; the Brennan Center study estimates that in 2008 1 to 2 million people voted on days now eliminated by those laws.
In Pennsylvania, GOP legislative leaders and Governor Tom Corbett have proposed a change in the way the state allocates its 20 presidential electors, which since the re-election of Thomas Jefferson more than 200 years ago have been awarded to the winner of the statewide popular vote. For the last 20 years, those electors have been awarded to Democratic presidential candidates. The PA GOP plan would allocate electors to the candidate winning each congressional district. Pennsylvania’s congressional districts are the result of state-of-the-art computer-driven partisan gerrymanders. A state that has voted for every Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton, which Barack Obama carried with 55 percent of the vote in 2008, has 12 Republican House members and only 7 Democrats (there will be one less seat in the state in 2012).
In fact, it is not obvious the plan would benefit the Republicans, although that appears to be the most likely outcome. According to Nate Silver of the Five Thirty Eight blog at the New York Times, under one at least plausible scenario if the Republican nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2012 and the new plan was in effect (virtually guaranteeing Obama six electors) it could cost the Republicans the White House. It is most telling, however, that the GOP would pursue a plan to make Pennsylvania politics dramatically more partisan than it already is.
Pennsylvania’s Republicans have also proposed a host of anti-worker bills including efforts to eliminate employee fair share payments (which compel workers who benefit from union contracts, union representation, union support staff and union pay scales to pay their fair share of the costs of providing those services and benefits). Some of these bills are limited to public employees, some to school employees. HB 50, creatively dubbed “The Freedom of Employment Act,” would prohibit all fair share provisions throughout the Commonwealth. HB 50 is one of four Pennsylvania House anti-union bills that are packaged together into what a group of right-wing Republican lawmakers are branding the “Pennsylvania Workforce Initiative.” As of this writing, none of these bills has moved out of committee.
This November in Ohio, voters will determine the fate of SB 5, the newly-minted law that bans strikes, eliminates binding arbitration, and prohibits collective bargaining for benefits for teachers, cops, and firefighters, turning collective bargaining into what Ohio union leaders call “collective begging.” All told, according to the Dayton Daily News (9/18/11), the bill effects “more than 180,000 schoolteachers and another 123,000 school district workers, 30,000 cops and firefighters, 57,000 state workers and more than 300,000 general government employees.” Opinion polls suggest a closely divided electorate, one bombarded by millions of dollars worth of 30-second advertisements. The fight of the fall is on.
Glenn Richardson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kutztown University and author of Pulp Politics: How Political Advertising Tells the Stories of American Politics.