WASHINGTON, Oct. 4 - New state laws that make it harder for millions of voters to cast ballots are detailed in a Government Accountability Office report released today.
The comprehensive study was requested by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). The senators asked the non-partisan research arm of Congress to investigate what they called an "alarming number" of new state laws that will make it "significantly harder" for millions of voters to cast ballots on Nov. 6.
Sanders called the voter restrictions, enacted mostly by Republican legislatures and governors, a "savage attack on American democracy." Leahy said "we must work to protect one of the most fundamental rights Americans enjoy." Durbin said the report confirms that the spate of state voting laws is making it harder for millions of disabled, young, minority, rural, elderly and low-income Americans to vote. "Despite widespread public outcry," Nelson said, "state lawmakers have tried to make it harder" to vote.
The GAO report was issued two days after a Pennsylvania judge issued the latest in a string of court rulings that have struck down or limited several state laws restricting access to the ballot box.
Overall, the study documented a major shift during the past decade. Twenty-one states passed new voter ID laws and seven states tightened existing ID requirements. Altogether, 31 states have requirements for all eligible voters to show identification prior to casting a ballot at the polls on Election Day, the report said. In addition, six states passed new proof-of-citizenship requirements and 18 states imposed new restrictions on voter registration drives during the past 10 years.
Since voter fraud was the ostensible reason for the new laws, the senators asked for details on "any prosecutions or convictions for voter impersonation fraud within each state during the previous 10 years." Citing a lack of data, the GAO was unable to document voter fraud. (An earlier report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that substantiated cases of voter fraud were extremely rare, comprising, for instance, just 0.0004 percent of votes cast statewide in the 2004 New Jersey general election - and that photo ID would not have prevented any of the problem votes.)
The GAO plans a follow-up report next year analyzing the impact of the new state laws on voters' ability to exercise their rights. That report will include a state-by-state analysis of the cost and accessibility of documents required to register to vote and obtain photo IDs, as well as data on the race, gender and socioeconomic status of the voters affected by the new requirements. The second phase of the report also will explore how many provisional ballots are cast and how many are ultimately counted in each state.
"We must make it easier, not harder, for poor and working people to vote and to participate in the political process," Sanders said. "There is no credible evidence of voter fraud having had any impact whatsoever on the outcome of an election in recent history. Using unfounded scare tactics and isolated cases to weaken the public's faith in elections and to disenfranchise millions of eligible voters is reprehensible."
"Today's GAO report shines a light on the wave of newly enacted state laws that burden and restrict the right to vote for millions of Americans," said Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. "I hope GAO follows up quickly with the review we have requested of alleged in-person voter fraud, the justification used by states in erecting these new barriers affecting millions of voters despite an almost total absence of evidence that it has impacted any election. As we saw in our recent Judiciary Committee hearing looking at the impact of laws to restrict voting, we must work to protect one of the most fundamental rights Americans enjoy - the right to vote."
"Today's GAO report confirms what many have been saying for over a year: the spate of recently passed state voting laws is making it harder for millions of disabled, young, minority, rural, elderly and low-income Americans to vote," said Durbin, who has chaired three congressional hearings on new state voting laws. "Protecting the right of every citizen to vote and ensuring that our elections are fair and transparent are not Democratic or Republican values, they are American values."
"Voting is the most basic tenet of any democracy, and despite widespread public outcry state lawmakers have tried to make it harder to do," Nelson said. "The steps taken by legislatures across the country have gone too far, as evidenced once again by the study released today."
To read the GAO report, click here.