In an interview with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly ignored key legal problems for photo voter ID laws under the Voting Rights Act and dismissed concerns of voter suppression, claiming in-person voter fraud was a problem.
On the January 29 edition of the O'Reilly Factor, O'Reilly hosted Powell to discuss "racial politics," voter suppression, and voter fraud, but failed to provide important context, including any mention of a crucial Voting Rights Act case set to be argued before the Supreme Court on February 27. In part, this case will turn on the historic civil rights law's efficacy at preventing the type of race-based voter suppression Powell described.
The problem that recent photo voter ID laws purport to address - voter fraud committed in person - is "virtually non-existent." Nevertheless, in the past two years, state Republican legislators and right-wing allies have aggressively pushed such laws that add another identification requirement for voting, even though voter identification is already required across the country. Under the Voting Rights Act, federal courts have recently confirmed that new voter ID laws in jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression have a prohibited effect on African-American and Hispanic voters.
O'Reilly refused to acknowledge any of these facts in his interview with Powell, even as Powell tried to explain them to him:
POWELL: One more point.
O'REILLY: All right. Go ahead, go ahead.
POWELL: You can't have policies that try to make it harder for minorities to vote. I think one of the most terrible things that happened in the past election season is when we had a number of states that were going out of their way, claiming there was outright fraud, when there really wasn't any fraud to be of concern to us.
But we were doing things to -- making it more difficult for those people to vote.
O'REILLY: I want to get very micro on this.
POWELL: Well, but you're --
O'REILLY: Voter ID -- wait, wait, wait.
POWELL: Go ahead.
O'REILLY: The voter ID, you object to showing an identification card when you vote?
POWELL: No. Of course not.
O'REILLY: Well, that's all the Republican Party wants. That's all they wanted is the voter ID.
POWELL: I object to putting in place additional levels of voter ID that --
O'REILLY: One, show one.
POWELL: -- disenfranchise, disenfranchise those of our fellow citizens. I want to see a Republican Party that, rather than trying to make it more difficult to vote and restricting the number of days and hours you can vote, a Republican Party that says we want everybody to vote and we're going to give you a reason to vote for us.
O'REILLY: All right. But I don't --I don't know if asking for an ID is trying to restrict the vote -- I mean, I'm sorry. You should be able to prove who you are before you cast a ballot.
POWELL: No, you should be able to prove who you are when you register to vote. And when you make the proper registration and identify yourself, you shouldn't have to go to some higher level which is going to restrict some.
O'REILLY: But surely you know how fraud is committed. I mean Boston, in Chicago, you register and then you show up and it's not you.
POWELL: I have not seen any study that says fraud is a problem of such significance that these kinds of procedures were in place. And I'm glad to see that Governor Scott in Florida has recently said he is turning this back over to his -- his local communities to handle.
O'REILLY: All right. I just think showing an ID to vote is the bare minimum.
O'Reilly's effort to discuss the topic in "micro" contained multiple inaccuracies and completely ignored the recent and relevant challenge to the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. For example, O'Reilly seems to be under the misimpression that "all the Republican party" wanted this past election cycle was "an identification card when you vote." Powell tried to correct him by noting the new voter ID laws were actually "additional levels" of already-required documentation. As detailed by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, it was precisely these redundant and unnecessary "additional levels" of identification which made this initiative pushed by state Republicans so troubling:
Currently, every state in America requires voters to prove their identities before receiving a ballot; different states require different levels of proof. Legislators in states across the country are now promoting bills that would require voters to meet more stringent documentation requirements before voting--including presenting photo identification at the polls on Election Day in order to cast a ballot. While the details of the proposals vary, these bills all would deny the right to vote to some or all citizens who are unable to produce a photo ID. Studies show that as many as 11 percent of United States citizens--mostly older, low-income, and minority citizens--do not have government-issued photo IDs.
As of last year, ten states have new "unprecedented" voter ID laws. In-person voter fraud of the type O'Reilly describes has been repeatedly shown to be a fabricated problem to justify the "solution" of government-issued photo voter IDs mandated under the recent legislation. State Republicans are beginning to admit these types of laws are purely a prohibited race-based voter suppression tactic, as Powell argued during his O'Reilly Factor appearance. O'Reilly did not mention these documented admissions.
O'Reilly also notably left out the fact that federal review has documented this phenomenon through the "pre-clearance" process under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids jurisdictions with a history of impermissible racial discrimination - such as states in the South - from enacting changes in election practices without approval. As election law expert Professor Rick Hasen recently explained, these are the examples of illegal voter suppression that O'Reilly was searching for:
Like many other states with Republican majority legislatures acting over the last few years, South Carolina adopted a tough photo identification law before the 2012 election. The state's Republican legislature likely acted out of the belief that such laws would marginally depress Democratic turnout and help Republicans at the polls. Controversy over voter ID laws also motivates the Republican base to turn out to vote. (What voter ID laws don't do is prevent a lot of real voter fraud, though that's the rationale their supporters cite.)
The U.S. Department of Justice blocked South Carolina's voter ID requirement under Section 5. The process sounds technical, but it's important. Nine full states and parts of other states with a history of racial discrimination in voting must get approval from either the Department of Justice or a three-judge court in Washington, D.C. before making any changes in their voting practices and procedures--from changes as small as moving a polling location to as large as enacting a new redistricting plan.
Voter ID laws have also passed outside the South in recent years, in states such as Indiana and Kansas. Because Section 5 doesn't apply there, no federal law prevents the voter ID requirements from going into effect, though some state courts have blocked them for other reasons. By contrast, because of Section 5, South Carolina's law automatically went on hold until it was softened. Texas, meanwhile, lost a bid to impose an even stricter voter ID requirement enacted in 2011.
Because GOP legislation of this sort is not going away, other media outlets are reporting on the clear and important link behind recent voter ID laws and the Voting Rights Act's prohibition of certain voter suppression that discriminates on the basis of race. In the coming weeks before the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the "pre-clearance" requirements of the Voting Rights Act, hopefully O'Reilly will finish the conversation he started with Powell and include this crucial context.