Recent changes in state voting laws could affect 5 million Americans, according to a study released last week. That's more than the margin in two of the past three presidential elections.
Of those 5 million people, 3.2 million could be affected by new requirements that voters show government-issued photo IDs, according to the study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law.
Driver's licenses are the most common government-issued photo IDs. The people least likely to have driver's licenses are elderly, poor and minorities.
Rep. John Lewis, D. Ga., who risked his life to secure voting rights for all Americans, calls this flurry of new restrictions "poll taxes by another name."
That's the background against which Kentuckians should judge Republican candidate for secretary of state Bill Johnson's promise to seek a photo ID requirement here.
Certainly, the secretary of state has a duty to safeguard the honesty of elections, and Kentucky has a history of election fraud. Ballot boxes have been stuffed, and, more commonly, votes bought. The people who sell their votes, are not impersonating legal voters, though; they are legal voters.
In fact, even though 34 states this year considered a photo ID requirement and seven states enacted one, known examples of voter impersonation are few and far between. The biggest, a 14-year conspiracy in Brooklyn, N.Y., was described by a grand jury in 1984.
Since then, in Kentucky alone, there have been numerous vote-buying allegations and convictions in which no one impersonated anyone.
The real motive behind the new restrictions is not blocking election fraud; it's blocking voters who traditionally favor Democrats. With the exception of Rhode Island, all the states that have enacted new restrictions on voting have Republican legislatures and governors.
One of them, Tennessee, has already provided an object lesson in what's wrong with the new ID requirement.
The Times-Free Press of Chattanooga last week reported that when Dorothy Cooper, 96, a lifelong voter, went to a state office to obtain her free photo ID, she brought her birth certificate, Social Security card, a rent receipt and her lease. She was turned away because her married name was not on her birth certificate. Cooper, who is black and has never had a driver's license, said she didn't realize she should have brought her marriage license too.
Officials recommended that Cooper avoid another wait in line on her walker by voting absentee, which under the new law does not require a photo ID. The retired domestic said she will miss voting at her neighborhood poll, where (important point) everyone knows her.
Democratic secretary of state candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes cites a similar example to explain her opposition to Johnson's proposal. It would "require my 91-year-old grandmother to go get a government-issued ID to vote at the precinct she's been voting at for the last 40 years."
The secretary of state should be making it more convenient for Kentuckians to vote, not throwing up unjustified barriers.
Kentucky voters now must prove who they are with a driver's license, Social Security card, credit card, other form of photo ID or recognition by a poll worker. That works just fine.
Even if states provide free IDs, the cost and time of assembling documents and waiting in line at a government office impose a greater burden on low-income and elderly voters.
Johnson's eagerness to disenfranchise some Kentuckians as part of a movement to gain an advantage for his political party reinforces our long-held position that secretary of state should be a non-elected office and as insulated as possible from partisan politics.
To view the analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law: www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/voting_law_changes_in_2012.