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Voting Rights, Voting Wrongs

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The Economist — Strict rules on voting could determine the outcome of November’s election

FLORIDA’S state primary is a month away, the presidential election is four months off and the Palm Beach County League of Women Voters (LWV) is busy. During the lunch rush at JFK Medical Centre on a recent Tuesday afternoon, several volunteers fanned out across the cafeteria, registration forms in hand. This was the first of three hospital-based voter-registration drives planned for the week, and it followed an event on July 4th that yielded 23 new registrations.

The Independence Day event was, however, the group’s first of the summer. Corinne Miller, the volunteer in charge of the JFK drive, says that by this stage in previous elections the LWV had already completed up to 30 drives. This time their efforts have been disrupted by a row over a law that went into effect last year, requiring all completed voter-registration forms to be submitted to the electoral authorities within 48 hours or risk a fine. Dennis Baxley, the Florida representative who sponsored the original bill, said the law was intended to encourage those registering to turn in the forms promptly, and to “minimise opportunities for mischief”. A federal judge disagreed, striking down the 48-hour rule on May 31st as excessive. But a degree of damage has already been done.

Florida is one of at least eight states where bills restricting voter-registration drives have been introduced since the start of 2011. Supporters of such laws argue that they safeguard the integrity of elections; opponents say they are unduly burdensome, and are designed solely to make it harder to register new voters.

Similar arguments have been used to support and attack laws requiring voters to show government-approved photo-ID in order to vote. Since the 2010 election, 11 states have passed such laws. Legislators in many more have proposed them. Before the 2010 election, only two states, Georgia and Indiana, had strict photo-ID requirements in place for voters. These laws are popular: they attracted 70% support, including majorities from both parties, in a Fox News poll released in April. And supporters say they are essential to prevent fraud. Opponents contend that the type of fraud these laws would prevent, in which one person impersonates another at the polls, is vanishingly rare.

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