When Charles Webster was a member of the Maine House during the 1980s and 1990s, he and his Republican colleagues routinely proposed bills that would create restrictive voting laws--or, as Webster sees it, legislation to tamp down on the rampant threat of voter fraud. "Every year we tried to solve this problem," he says, "and it was always a partisan vote," with Democrats supporting laws intended to increase turnout. As a result, Webster says, "We have one of the most loosey-goosey, lax election laws in the country."
Others would call Maine's voting laws a striking success. Most states struggle to get citizens to the polls; national turnout for a presidential election hasn't topped 60 percent since 1968, and turnout for midterm elections hovers in the 30s. That puts the United States far below the participation level in other Western democracies. Yet for the past four decades, Maine has stood apart. With an array of regulations that encourage voting--the state has allowed voters to register on Election Day since 1973--Maine consistently places among the top five states for turnout. Seventy-two percent of the eligible population voted in 2008 when Barack Obama carried the state.
Republicans like Webster, who now chairs the state COP, argue that too many people are voting in the state--at least, too many illegal immigrants, out-of-state college students, and people who live in hotels. "What I don't want is somebody coming in stealing elections who doesn't live in the town," Webster says.
The political winds shifted Webster's way after the 2010 elections--not just in Maine but across the country. Maine was one of 11 states where Republican majorities won control over both legislatures. This was the first time in four decades that Democrats had been out of power in the state, and the new Republican majority acted fast. After trying and failing to pass a voter-identification law, they succeeded in repealing same-day voter registration. Republican Governor Paul LePage signed the bill in June.
The push against voting rights in Maine is just one example of the most direct assault on ballot access since the Jim Crow era. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the influential corporate-funded group that writes model bills for Republican state legislators, has pushed Republicans across the country to impose new restrictions on voting and to overturn progressive laws like Maine's. "I don't want everybody to vote," ALEC co-founder Paul Weyrich said three decades ago. 'As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states have passed a steady stream of reforms to make it easier for people to vote. Now Republicans are pushing to make voting more difficult. "This is a hard-fought privilege," one Florida state senator said earlier this year. "This is something people die for. You want to make it convenient?"
The most headline-grabbing effort has been the creation of laws requiring voters to have photo identification at the polls. Five states--Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Kansas--have enacted strict photo-ID laws since the beginning of the year. Democrats argue that these laws have clear political motivations. Studies indicate that the groups most likely to vote Democratic--the young, elderly, poor, mobile, and minorities--are the ones whose members tend to lack a photo ID. The rules are often configured specifically to favor the Republican base at the expense of excluding likely Democrats. In Texas, for example, showing a military ID or a concealed-gun license will get you a ballot, but a college ID won't. As many as one in four African Americans lack the identification these states now require, leading Georgia Congressman John Lewis to call the laws "poll taxes by another name." (Under the Voting Rights Act, voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina must be approved by the Department of Justice because of those states' history of minority-voter suppression. …