WASHINGTON – Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee debated the necessity of voter ID laws and early-voting restrictions Wednesday, with Democrats accusing Republicans of aiming to suppress the votes of African Americans and Latinos.
The hearing followed incidents in which many voters, in Florida in particular, stood in line for hours to cast their ballots in November's presidential election, with some eventually giving up.
Democrats on the panel of witnesses said some of the current voting policies around the country disproportionately affect African Americans, Latinos, seniors and the working poor.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) criticized what he called politically motivated efforts by the Republican Party, including voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting, which are “clearly designed to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters.”
One example cited was the elimination of access to early voting in Florida on the Sunday before the Tuesday election – a day traditionally used by many African Americans and Latinos to cast their votes.
But Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the committee, said the efforts were “common-sense measures” introduced merely to combat voter fraud, not to suppress voting.
Asked about the extent of the problem of voter fraud in his state, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, a Republican, said he had found only six voters who were ineligible to vote, but added that access to a citizenship database could probably make the task of finding ineligible voters easier.
He said the challenge remains of maintaining the balance between “voters’ rights and election integrity.”
Arizona's secretary of state, Republican Ken Bennett, acknowledged that while it is a fundamental right for a citizen to be able to cast a ballot, it is also a person’s right to be assured that their vote is “not being canceled out” or being offset by someone who is not legally allowed to vote.
Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat in the South Carolina Legislature, whose district is 63% African American, asked the committee to acknowledge the “history of racism and discrimination” that plays a part in voter suppression laws.
For many voters, “an ID is something that is difficult to come by,” Cobb-Hunter said.
Women who are divorced, for example, may find that they have to incur the expense of going through a name-change process before they will be allowed to vote.
Cobb-Hunter told the committee that many of her constituents are people who were born on farms, delivered by midwives, and as such their births are often recorded in the family Bible.
It's “not a case of supporting fraud,” she said, but about the effort and expense sometimes entailed in a poorer person obtaining an ID.