Voter suppression is partisan warfare: USF St. Pete professor

10/15/12 Janelle Irwin
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Republican led State legislatures across the country have passed numerous laws they say will ensure only legitimate voters are casting ballots. Opponents call them voter suppression laws and say they disenfranchise minorities and people with low incomes. Seth McKee, an associate professor of political science at USF St. Pete tackled the issue this month during a lecture at the school’s library.

“Oh, there’s bi-partisan agreement that these laws are just done to protect the integrity of the electoral system. Oh yeah!”

According to McKee, Oh no is more like it.

“Ninety plus percent Republicans, yes, let’s do it. Over 80% typically of Democrats say, no.”

“This notion of voter fraud that we hear about, ballot box integrity, it just seems a farce. As someone who studies this sort of thing, it just doesn’t seem very believable. And here’s why: the most likely outlet for fraud is absentee balloting and absentee balloting hasn’t been touched. Who’s more likely to cast an absentee ballot? A Republican.”

McKee argues that there has always been a push to either expand or reduce the electorate. But he says the biggest example of historical voter suppression is among African-American men in the South. He added politicians in power knew they would vote against them.

“In 1870, the 15th Amendment is passed and it gives African-American males the right to vote, and we’ll see that those rights are lost. They’re not really protected and secured and it takes almost another 100 years later to get those rights back.”

Now it’s happening again. McKee said President Barack Obama was successful in collecting record numbers of Latino and African-American voters as well as the low income and under thirty vote.

“If you can get those people to the polls at high rates, you’re going to do really well.”

Susan Allen is also a professor at USF St. Pete who teaches social work. She agreed with McKee that the best way for Obama to win this election and other Democrats to win in future races is to tap into groups that aren’t as likely to vote. Allen said that’s what happened in 2008 when Obama eked out a victory over U.S. Senator John McCain.

“I think the biggest thing we have to worry about is people not voting at all and the kind of apathy of people just giving up on the political system.”

And she’s worried that the voter suppression tactics in states like Florida, Iowa and Virginia – among others – will further handicap President Obama in his race against Republican Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

“That the Republicans may have better luck getting their population out to vote than Democrats may have.”

In any given election year manipulating the electorate could capitalize on votes for a political party. It’s why McKee calls the U.S. a 49% nation.

“The point is that these parties don’t have any permanent majorities. Look at the House of Representatives. The solid line is the total seat difference, so if it’s positive that’s the net number of seats for Democrats. Well, they’re doing great in ’92, but look at from ’94 until Democrats take back over in 2006 – their fighting like cats and dogs from ’94 through the next 12 years. Any election in the U.S. House of Representatives in any cycle could turn to the other party.”

McKee showed slides of political trends over the past few decades. When George Bush Sr. slaughtered Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election, the nation seemed to lean significantly to the right. But it quickly evened out. So, why do voters seem so fickle?

“Independents. They don’t like the dish they were just served so they send it back and they ask a Democrat to make it. So, independents are really messing with the U.S. House majorities.”

McKee’s lecture was part of USF St. Pete’s “banned book week.” Kaya Van Beynen is the school’s associate librarian. She said libraries hold events every year to draw attention to censorship.

“And voting seems like the most obvious right in our ability to express our political opinions, personal opinions and so we thought that would be a great topic – a popular topic to tie into the election series talking about the suppression to vote efforts that are going on.”

Florida passed a bill last year that limits the number of early voting days in the state and requires a person to cast a provisional ballot if they have moved out of their county without updating their voter registration. The bill had included strict rules for third party registration groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote. That would have imposed fees for not turning registrations in within 48 hours instead of the original mandate which was ten days. That provision was later overruled. Florida joins four other states in reducing the number of early voting days.

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