In March, the BLS-ACLU hosted Lee Rowland, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, to discuss current issues concerning election law and careers that focus on voting rights.
A dedicated voting rights activist, Rowland began her career as the head of the ACLU office in Reno, Nevada. Over the past 10 years, Nevada has transitioned into a “blue state”, Rowland explained, in direct relation to its growing Latino community. Those who opposed this shift, she said, sometimes took illegal measures to deter uninformed Democrat voters. These actions, which Rowland and her team fought against, ranged from pre-recorded phone messages instructing Democrats to vote on the wrong day to groups intimidating voters outside of polling areas.
In her talk, Rowland focused on the current controversy surrounding voting rights: the growing number of states that are introducing laws that require a photo ID to vote. “What is at stake is not simply ‘Who can vote?’ and ‘Who has ID?’” she argued, but, “This type of legislation seeks to undo voter equality that was established by the Voting Rights Act, argued Rowland.”
For example, she pointed out that in Texas, voters may use a concealed weapons license, but not a university ID. This decision creates clear racial divides, she argued: while over 90% of gun owners in the state are white, 40% of college students are black or Latino. Other states primarily aimed to prevent student voters, she remarked. Wisconsin’s photo ID law was drafted in a way that purposely excluded the politically active and traditionally left-leaning students of the University of Wisconsin, she said. In another case, Maine’s Attorney General launched a public investigation of voter fraud against students who had listed a hotel as their home address. It was later discovered that these students were Maine residents who had been displaced by hurricanes at other universities and had been taken in temporarily by local schools.
Rowland took particular offense at these kinds of claims of voter fraud. “Voter fraud occurs as frequently as getting hit by lightning,” she said. In fact, the most common type of voter fraud is related to absentee ballots, which are not protected by photo ID laws. She closed by calling upon audience members to be vigilant against these forms of voter disenfranchisement, particularly false stories about voter fraud that will likely emerge in the months prior to the 2012 presidential election. “It is our responsibility to make sure student voters and minority voters are not taken in,” she concluded.