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GOP 2011-12 Agenda: Union and Voter Suppression

Twenty months out from the 2012 election, the GOP's voter suppression strategy is taking shape. By crushing public sector unions and expanding felon and student disenfranchisement, they hope to weaken Democratic turnout. While they have always supported these strategies, the margins Republicans gained in state houses in the November elections have empowered them to launch a much stronger voter suppression campaign.

There is reason to hope that their efforts to gut public sector unions will backfire, as evidenced by recent public opinion polls regarding Governor Walker's union-busting campaign in Wisconsin. The fact that Walker exempted the three unions that supported him is proof enough that his primary objective is to disempower public unions because they have provided significant support for Democratic candidates.

In Florida, Governor Scott and his cohorts on the all-Republican Executive Clemency Board are setting a new standard for shameless partisan sleaze, with a racist twist. Here's how Peter Wallsten's Washington Post article explained this bit of political chicanery:

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Cabinet-level officials voted unanimously Wednesday to roll back state rules enacted four years ago that made it easier for many ex-felons to regain the right to vote.

Now, under the new rules, even nonviolent offenders would have to wait five years after the conclusion of their sentences to apply for the chance to have their civil rights restored.

In 2007 Florida Governor Charlie Crist initiated a measure to make civil rights restoration "almost automatic" for most ex-felons. Wallsten reports that more than 100,000 ex-felons took advantage of Crists initiative to attempt to register to vote. "Experts say many of those new voters were likely Democratic-leaning African Americans," reports Wallsten, which likely helped Obama win Florida.

Approximately 54,000 ex-felons in Florida had their civil rights restored since 2007, before which the state restored the rights of only about 8,000 ex-felons annually, according to the ACLU.

The "rationale," for the initiative according to a spokesperson for the Republican Florida A.G.:

"This issue of civil rights restoration is about principle, not partisanship...Attorney General Bondi is philosophically opposed to the concept of automatic restoration of civil rights and believes not only that felons should apply for their rights, but wait for a period of time in order to attest to their rehabilitation and commitment to living a crime-free life.

Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sees the Republican measure a little differently. "It clearly has the effect of suppressing the vote as we go into a presidential election cycle."

Unfortunately, the constitutionality of felon disenfranchisement has been upheld in courts from time to time, even though punishing people beyond the terms of their sentence remains a dubious proposition in a real democracy. Certainly the Florida Republicans have no qualms about making a mockery of the principle of rehabilitation in their criminal justice system. And no fair-minded person could deny that felon disenfranchisement targets African Americans, given their disproportionate incarceration rates, which numerous scholars have attributed to bias in sentencing.

In addition to the Republican efforts to crush public employee unionism and disenfranchise African American voters, Tobin Van Ostern reports at Campus Progress on the escalation of the conservative campaign to disenfranchise another pro-Democratic group, students:

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization linked to corporate and right-wing donors, including the billionaire Koch brothers, has drafted and distributed model legislation, obtained by Campus Progress, that appears to be the inspiration for bills proposed by state legislators this year and promoted by Tea Party activists, bills that would limit access of young people to vote.

...Charles Monaco, the press and new media specialist at the Progressive States Network, a state-based organization that has been tracking this issue, says, "ALEC is involved with a vast network of well-funded right wing organizations working to spread voter ID laws in the state legislatures. It is clear what their purpose is with these laws--to reduce progressive turnout and tilt the playing field towards their preferred candidates in elections."

In Wisconsin and New Hampshire, for example,

Conservative representatives in the state have proposed a law, backed by Walker, that would ban students from using in-state university- or college-issued IDs for proof-of-residency when voting. If this legislation became law, it would become one of the strictest voter registration laws in the country and would provide significant logistical and financial barriers for a variety of groups, including student and minority voters.

Meanwhile, as Campus Progress reported last month, in New Hampshire, state House Speaker William O'Brien (R- Hillsborough 4) says that proposed election legislation will "tighten up the definition of a New Hampshire resident." O'Brien claims that college towns experience hundreds of same-day voter registrations and that those are the ballots of people who "are kids voting liberal, voting their feelings, with no life experience."

To repeat, the Speaker of the New Hampshire House says it's OK to deny a group of predominantly young people voting rights because they are "voting liberal." If Dems don't make an ad about that targeting youth voters nationwide, they should be cited for political negligence. In other states,

...According to research by the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) and Campus Progress, in the past six years, seven states have enacted laws that disenfranchise students or make it more difficult for them to vote. This year, 18 additional states are considering similar laws, while other states are proposing voter ID laws that would depress turnout among other groups of voters--particularly those who traditionally lean left...These requirements run the gamut from requiring in-state driver's licenses, to banning school IDs, to prohibiting first-time voters--essentially every college-aged voter--from voting by absentee ballot...

There can be no doubt at this point about the GOP' political strategy for 2011-12: Crush unions, disenfranchise ex-felons and students -- such are the often unintended consequences of voting Republican. For Dems, the challenges couldn't be more clear: Publicize the GOP's contempt for voting rights; Reach out to win the support of blue collar workers and energize our base constituencies with bold, populist reforms that create jobs and protect and improve their living standards.