Was the 2012 presidential election just decided by the Republican-controlled legislature in Ohio? It is possible. Two days ago, the state's House of Representatives passed one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country. If the bill is enacted into law, it will make it harder for President Obama to win in Ohio next year.
Ohio, as we all know, has become the mother of all swing states. It was ground zero of the titanic fight between Bush and Kerry in 2004, and the outcome there narrowly secured Bush a second term. Ohio was also hotly contested in 2000.
Obama fought hard to win the state in 2008, and did so with a five point margin. But a new poll out earlier this week now shows Ohioans exactly divided on whether Obama should be re-elected. With unemployment in Ohio still likely to be above 8 percent next year, Ohio is going to be a tough fight for Democrats and the state will again be the scene of massive turnout efforts by both parties.
If Ohio is decided by a close margin, the new voter ID law could give a Republican contender enough of an edge to win there. And, if the state's 20 electoral votes are decisive, the outcome in Ohio could determine the election.
The math here is pretty simple. According to state Democrats, an estimated 890,000 Ohioans do not have a government-issued photo ID. A disproportionate number of these people are African-Americans, Latinos, seniors, and students -- groups that tend to vote Democratic. In fact, nationwide about 25 percent of African Americans do not have a photo ID and nor do a fifth of voters between 18 and 22.
A 2007 study on voter ID requirements by three political scientists -- Matt Barreto, Stephen Nuño, and Gabriel Sanchez -- found that voting laws which require specific or multiple forms of identification are likely to "disenfranchise many Latino, Asian and African American citizens."
The study also found that voter ID laws have clear partisan effects:
We find compelling evidence that those less likely to have access to multiple forms of identification are disproportionately Democrat. . . . voters with more access to identification are more likely to vote Republican.
The Ohio Republicans who engineered the voting ID legislation say there should be no worries because the new law allows voters to get a free photo ID at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. But come on: the obstacles to registering and voting are already bad enough in most states and Ohio is worse than most. Ohioans must register 30 days before election day, even though polls have long shown that many voters don't get really engaged in election contests until a few weeks or even days before election day.
Ohio is also famous for its long lines at polling places and various other problems with its election practices. Things were so bad there that in 2005 top state officials were sued by reform groups and citizens for failing to protect the fundamental voting rights of Ohioans. That suit resulted in a historic 2009 agreement to fix how elections are conducted in the state.
Maybe I'm missing something here, but asking some of the state's poorest residents -- many of whom don't have ID because they don't have cars -- to schlep to the BMV to get a photo ID card is not exactly consistent with the spirit of that agreement. (Nor is it consistent with efforts to control state spending, since giving out those free IDs could cost nearly $20 million over three years, as Tova Wang, a Senior Democracy Fellow at Demos, pointed out in testimony to the legislature there earlier this week -- just one of the implementation costs associated with the law.) The net effect could be to throw up the highest barriers to voting in Ohio yet.
Which seems to be exactly the point of Republican legislators who rushed the voter ID bill through the Ohio House.
Now, if there was any credible evidence of voting fraud in Ohio, there might be reasons to think this is something other than a partisan power play. But no such evidence exists. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes about Ohio, in a policy brief about voter identification: "a statewide survey found four instances of ineligible persons voting or attempting to vote in 2002 and 20042 out of 9,078,728 votes cast - a rate of 0.00004%."
Not surprisingly, fraud is not a pressing concern of local election officials. For instance, as the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported "Cuyahoga County Board of Elections head Jane Platten, a Democrat, said she has never seen a case of voter impersonation in the seven years she has been with the local elections board." During that period, millions of voter were cast by the nearly 1 million registered voters in the county. Former Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner told the paper that during her four years in office she also never saw a single case of voter impersonation in Ohio. And a top election official who served an earlier secretary of state said the same thing.
Last year, Demos Senior Fellow Lori Minnite published a groundbreaking book with the blunt title The Myth of Voter Fraud. Minnite's research in multiple states confirmed the observations of veteran election officials in Ohio: voter fraud is not a significant problem in U.S. elections.
What is a threat to our electoral system are deliberate efforts to disenfranchise voters for partisan gain. And make no mistake: That is what is happening in Ohio.