There was a sea change in the approach to election issues across America in the late 2000s, as Dale Ho sees it. He isn’t sure what the cause was, but he is sure it wasn’t a good development. Ho is director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, which makes him one of the leaders of legal opposition nationwide to tightening the rules on who can vote.
Ho told an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at Eckstein Hall on Wednesday that voting rights issues had largely drawn bipartisan support for decades.
“We had thought we had largely achieved a consensus in this country around universal suffrage, basic access for everyone (to voting),” Ho said. “Most of the debates about voting rights since the early 1970s were about redistricting – are the lines being drawn fairly for every community, are they being gerrymandered for partisan reasons, things like that. The trend remained toward greater liberalization in terms of ballot access. We didn’t see a lot of fights about registration and ballot access. . . .
“In the late 2000s, something changed.”
Until then, Ho said, only two states had strict voter identification rules. That number went to about a dozen around 2012 and efforts to tighten rules related to voting continue. “For people who work in my field, this was very, very surprising,” said Ho.
Wisconsin became one of the states that passed stricter laws dealing with voter identification, particularly requiring voters to show a photo ID before they can cast a ballot. That brought Ho’s involvement in Wisconsin, as the ACLU played a key role in legal challenges to that law. With the recent decision by the US Supreme Court not to take up an appeal from a decision of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that allows the law to go into effect, voters in Wisconsin appear close to certain to be required to present photo IDs in future elections.
Gousha, Marquette Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, asked Ho why a photo ID rule was a big deal when photo IDs are required for so many things in today’s world.
Ho said that for about 90 percent of people, it’s not a big deal because they have driver’s licenses. But for the remaining 10 percent, it often is because many face hurdles such as age or disability that make even a free identification card offered at Department of Motor Vehicles offices difficult, if not impossible, to get. And that 10 percent was estimated in court proceedings to come to about 300,000 people in Wisconsin, he said. When some key elections in recent years (the Florida presidential vote in 2000, most famously) have been decided by narrow margins, that’s an important number of potential voters.
He also said it is not true that you need a photo ID to get on an airplane or pick-up a prescription. Although it is the norm to use photo IDs, there are alternative procedures, Ho said.
Ho said, “One of the things that I think is very, very dis-spiriting is the way that controversies about voting have become so hyper-partisan and polarized.”
He wondered why the bipartisan support for voting rights laws had broken down. He said, “I don’t know if it broke down because the country as a whole was becoming more polarized and now the parties are just trying to seek whatever partisan advantage they think they can get from changing the rules of election administration, or if it’s something else. There are a lot of possibilities there. The right to vote has become a partisan football in a way that is not healthy for a democracy, and both sides play the game.” While he said it was true that Republicans had pushed for tightening up voting rules, he said there have been situations in some states where it was Democrats who pushed to change rules they thought gave Republicans advantages.
Video of the one-hour discussion with Ho may be seen by clicking here.