Photographer: Evan Sung
Photographer: Evan Sung

Rick Perry said the laws were “among the most onerous in the nation,” and possibly even unconstitutional. Newt Gingrich compared their impact to Pearl Harbor. Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum were so intimidated that they simply slunk away without a fight.

Social Security? Obamacare? Dodd-Frank? Nope. Virginia’s ballot-access laws. Of the seven candidates still in serious contention for the Republican nomination for the presidency, only two of them -- Mitt Romney and Ron Paul -- will be appearing in the Virginia primary on March 6.

Republicans are furious. Some of them blame the candidates who failed to qualify. Ed Morrissey, writing at the conservative website HotAir.com, says Perry and Gingrich are “failing the competence primary.” He’s more sympathetic to Bachmann, Huntsman and Santorum, as he sees their failure to qualify in Virginia as “a strategic deployment of very finite resources.”

But other Republicans -- and most of the candidates -- have turned their fire on Virginia. Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, was particularly unsparing about the access laws. “Virginia won’t be nearly as ‘fought over’ as it should be in the midst of such a wide open nomination contest,” he wrote in an e-mail to supporters. “Our own laws have reduced our relevance. Sad. I hope our new GOP majorities will fix this problem so that neither party confronts it again.”

He hopes, in other words, that Virginia will make it easier for Republican candidates to get on the ballot, so Virginia’s voters are better able to participate in the election. It’s a noble goal, and one many Republicans share right now. But it runs directly counter to the efforts Republicans have mounted in dozens of states to make it more difficult for ordinary Americans to participate in the 2012 election.

Block That Vote

In a paper published by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden described the changes made to the voting laws since the 2008 election particularly bluntly. “Over the past century, our nation expanded the franchise and knocked down myriad barriers to full electoral participation,” they wrote. “In 2011, however, that momentum abruptly shifted.”

The changes take a few different forms. Thirty-four states have introduced -- and seven have passed -- strict laws requiring photo IDs. That may not seem like a big deal, but as Weiser and Norden note, “11% of American citizens do not possess a government-issued photo ID; that is over 21 million citizens” -- and poor and black Americans are disproportionately represented in that total.

It’s not just photo ID laws, of course. Thirteen states have introduced bills to end same-day and election-day voter registration. Nine states have introduced laws restricting early voting, and four more have introduced proposals to restrict absentee voting. Two states have reversed decisions allowing ex-convicts to vote, and 12 states have introduced laws requiring proof of citizenship. Nationally, House Republicans voted to do away with the Election Assistance Commission.

As Ari Berman detailed in an article this summer for Rolling Stone, these laws have mostly been introduced by Republicans, who have justified them largely on fraud-prevention grounds. The only problem is that it’s been extremely hard for advocates of more restrictive voting laws to prove that fraud is a problem.

As Berman wrote, “A major probe by the Justice Department between 2002 and 2007 failed to prosecute a single person for going to the polls and impersonating an eligible voter, which the anti-fraud laws are supposedly designed to stop. Out of the 300 million votes cast in that period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud -- and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility.” Joked Stephen Colbert: “Our democracy is under siege from an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere.”

Changing the Rules

One of the most restrictive laws in the nation, in fact, was signed by Texas Governor Rick Perry. The bill, which Perry fast-tracked by designating it as “emergency” legislation, enforces a photo ID requirement that can be met by a concealed handgun permit but not by a student ID from a state university. And under the law only a Texas citizen who has passed a mandatory training program can register voters.

That would be the same Perry who is now challenging Virginia’s rules. But the differences between the law Perry signed, and the law he’s challenging, are instructive.

Perry is an experienced politician who has hired a professional staff for the express purpose of navigating the logistical hurdle of ballot access. And he still failed to make the Virginia ballot, despite the fact that the rules were well known and unchanged since the last election.

In Texas, however, Perry has sharply changed the rules, changed them on people who do not have a staff dedicated to helping them vote, and in fact made it harder for outside groups to send professionals into the state to help potential voters navigate the new law.

I would normally end a column like this on an ambivalent note. Something like: “Perhaps Perry’s recent experience with applying for Virginia’s ballot will make him -- and his colleagues across the country -- rethink the laws they have passed making it harder for ordinary Americans to get their ballots counted.” But they won’t. The open secret of these laws is that they hurt turnout among Democratic constituencies -- students, minorities, low-income voters, etc. -- which helps Republican politicians get elected. Virginia is just an odd case where restrictive ballot-access laws are hurting Republican politicians.

(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed here are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ezra Klein in Washington at wonkbook@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.