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David Danbom, Published February 01 2009

Republican voter bills are political

At first glance, it is difficult to disagree with The Forum’s editorial judgment of Jan. 27 that two voting “reform” measures introduced in the North Dakota Legislature by Fargo Republican Rep. Al Carlson and three of his local colleagues are solutions in search of a problem.

The first, House Bill 1576, would reduce the period for early voting from 15 days prior to the election to seven. Has early voting become a big problem? Is there something wrong with giving people who have work and family responsibilities more flexibility in casting their votes? Cass County voters didn’t seem to think so last fall. Twenty thousand of them showed up when the county auditor’s office expected 4,000.

The second measure is House Bill 1516. It would give election workers just three days to verify information on affidavits filled out by voters who cannot prove residency. If the information could not be verified in that period, the votes in question would not count, disfranchising college students, new residents and others who have changed domiciles recently. Again, is this a big problem here? Do we have a lot of fraudulent voting in this state? If Carlson and his colleagues could identify even one verifiable instance of voter fraud in North Dakota, they might have a case, but if they could we have to assume they would.

Maybe the problem Carlson and his friends have is not that the current voting-friendly system doesn’t work. Maybe their real complaint is that it works too well.

One of the benefits of our cultural lag in North Dakota is that we can see what’s going to happen to us years before it does. And for a number of years now, Republicans in other states and at the national level have engaged in a program of voter suppression, masquerading as an attempt to curb “voter fraud.”

Beginning in the South, with its long and storied history of disfranchisement, Republicans have experimented with devices to discourage the poor, the young, the nonwhite, and others who leaned to the Democratic Party from voting. These devices range from the requirement of government-issued identification cards to the provision of few and antiquated voting machines in Democratic neighborhoods to the erection of police check-points near voting places in poor precincts and much in between.

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, the considerable power of the Justice Department was bent to the voter suppression effort. The scandal over the firing of the United States attorneys, you may remember, was rooted in the anger of Karl Rove and his flunkies at Justice at those U.S. attorneys who refused to look for “voter fraud” where none existed.

It appears that Carlson and his friends have finally gotten the memo, and not a moment too soon. Cass County has been slowly trending Democratic over the past few years, and Barack Obama actually carried the county in November. One answer to this challenge would be for the Republican Party to develop programs and policies that appealed to some of those who are voting Democratic. Another answer – and the one embodied in this legislation – is to make it harder for those who lean Democratic to vote.

So this may not exactly be a solution in search of a problem, as The Forum suggests. It may be a solution to a problem our local Republican legislators refuse to reveal.

Danbom of Fargo is a university history professor and contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages.