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Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Monday, June 26
 
The Hyde Vote Suppression Bill
I've been in Washington, DC for the past few days and, on Thursday, attended a hearing of the House Administration Committee on H.R. 4844. Although somewhat lost in the last few days with the news that Voting Rights Act renewal has stalled (more on this to come), this is a very significant bill. Proposed by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), the bill would make drastic changes to both the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) that would drastically alter -- and, in my view, undermine -- the way they presently function.

As the testimony on Thursday made clear, the bill is a product of the intense and increasingly polarized debate over immigration. Briefly, the bill would require applicants using the federal mail registration form to provide a photocopy of documents proving that they're citizens of the United States. In addition, HAVA's limited identification requirement would be amended to require all citizens to provide "current and valid photo identification" in order to vote. Election officials would be forbidden from accepting "any ballot," including even a provisional ballot, from those who lack photo ID. The bill would take effect in the November 2006 elections.

I know that the words "vote suppression," which I've used in the title to this post are strong ones, and I generally try to avoid inflammatory rhetoric. But I don't know how else to describe a bill that would require voters to produce documents that many of them don't have, in order to register or to vote. As Rep. Hyde has undoubtedly noticed, there's no one document that all citizens have to prove their citizenship. And according to a task force report produced for the Carter-Ford commission in 2001, approximately 6-10% of adults lack a state-issued driver's license. The Hyde Bill is actually worse than the Georgia photo ID bill enjoined by a court last year, in that it doesn't even make a token effort to provide voters with identification they lack.

Is Rep. Hyde's intent to suppress votes? That I don't know. During his testimony, he displayed an astounding ignorance of the consequences that his bill would have on the many people who don't have the documents his bill would require. He also could provide no estimate of how many noncitizens actually attempt to vote. In fact, none of those who testified in support of this bill provided any such estimate. The closest anyone came was the Harris County registrar, testifying in support of the bill, who said that of 1.9 million voters, a total of 35 foreign nationals attempted to register. Note that these are only alleged non-citizens who attempted to register, not those who tried to votes -- and some may have been people applying for citizenship with no intention of actually voting until they gained their citizenship. But even if we assume that all of them tried to vote, those 35 people amount to 0.0018% -- or one ineligible voter for every 54,285 eligible ones.

Whatever the intentions of Rep. Hyde or those who support his bill, there can be little doubt that the effect of this bill would be to suppress votes. From research done in Wisconsin, we know that voters of color -- particularly young black men -- are much less likely to possess photo ID. So are people with disabilities, elderly voters, and the poor generally. In one especially striking moment, a supporter of the bill testified it would be a good idea to "grandfather" in those already registered. An inadvertent slip, no doubt, but one that speaks volumes about what this bill would do.

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Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University