This nation's historical march toward fairer elections may well be stymied this November by two deplorable phenomena.
One is the pending end-of-campaign advertising blitz that will be grossly warped by the expenditure of nearly a billion dollars by super-PACs and openly partisan non-profit entities funded by a handful of anti-Obama multibillionaires and megamillionaires. Under the Supreme Court's blatantly partisan 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United case in 2010 that airily overturned a century of high court precedents against unchecked election spending, this new wave of cash by super-rich individuals and corporate chiefs will be perfectly legal so long as its dirty campaign ads are not technically coordinated with the candidates' official campaigns.
The second phenomena is the wave of strict voter-ID laws adopted -- on the indefensible and unproved notion of voter fraud -- by Republican-controlled state legislatures since 2010. Their real purpose is to suppress the votes of the elderly, minorities, students and naturalized immigrants, whose votes in 2008 helped President Obama win the election.
Not much can be done in the short term about the cash sewer from the Koch brothers, casino czar Sheldon Adelson and their pals who are driving the financing of the super-PACs and the abuse of nonprofit -- and supposedly nonpartisan -- entities allowed under the IRS codes. Until the activist Republican majority on the Supreme Court is reined in, the super-rich now can influence close elections almost at their whim. Still, it is the harsh voter ID laws that are most vulnerable to legal challenges -- and that are most likely to tilt a very close election at the end.
There is, to be sure, a clear connection between funders of the super-PACs and the voter ID laws. The Koch brothers, for example, also help fund the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC. Which is the source of the "model legislation" that Republican-dominated Legislatures -- Tennessee's GOP lawmakers are on it like ticks on a hound dog -- have used to roll out extreme voter ID, gun-carry and anti-abortion laws, while quietly gutting campaign financing restrictions on corporate interests and lobbyists' campaign donations. Tennesseans who doubt ALEC's impact here need only examine the ALEC model bills our Legislature passed earlier this year. One of those bills went so far as to strike language referring to its "model bill" source.
Regardless, the strict voter ID laws yet remain subject to rulings from trial and appellate courts, and they should be challenged.
Elderly, minority and immigrant voters targeted by these laws often do not own cars or have readily available transportation to gather documents and take them to drivers' licenses centers to get photo-IDs. Some may be shut-ins; others may not have timely access to a birth certificate and other records.
An elderly African-American woman in Chattanooga, for example, had great difficulty a few months ago accessing a copy of a marriage license to affirm her maiden name on a hard-to-get birth certificate. As the media watched, she then had to wait hours in line on three different occasions at a drivers' license center to finally obtain a voter-ID license.
Tennessee makes it harder than most states for voters the GOP doesn't want to vote. Of the state's 95 counties, less than half have drivers' license center with photo ID capacity. Gov. Bill Haslam and the Secretary of State over the state's election commissions still refuse to give our convenient local county election commissions a photo-ID machine and authority to confirm voter registration and issue photo IDs.
The most closely watched legal contests against ALEC-inspired strict voter ID laws are those in the presidential battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Justice Department lawyers, however, are examining similar laws in South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama, which due to their racist Jim Crow voting history must pass clearance under Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act.
The Justice Department lawyers should help Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, who is rightly pursuing a challenge of Tennessee's voter ID law. Given Tennessee's lurch to the right in recent elections, his lawsuit -- now shifted from federal court to a state chancery court -- may not matter much this time around.
Regardless, it would help an estimated 390,000 registered Tennessee voters whose current, valid, voter registration cards may be refused on November 6 because Tennessee has become one of the ALEC states that puts partisanship ahead of citizens' most sacred civil right -- the right to vote without undue state interference.