Utah lawmakers aren’t trendy. They’re rarely progressive at anything—except when it comes to regressive legislation.
But with voter ID, the conservatives running Utah’s Capitol Hill were positively avant-garde.
Long before the 2010 election swept conservatives into office in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida and launched a wave of voter-suppression measures, the Beehive State already had a supermajority of right-wingers. The state is a regular laboratory for every wing-nutty piece of legislation floated by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the coal-billionaire Koch brothers.
So, while conservative swing-staters’ last-minute efforts to manipulate the 2012 election are stuck in the courts, Utah legislators have been resting on their laurels. Making it difficult for brown people to vote? That’s so yesterday.
Utahns have been showing photo ID at the polls—or a combination of birth certificates or hunting licenses or tribal treaty cards or utility bills—for a while now.
“It offends me down to my socks to show up at the polling place where I’ve voted for years, manned by workers who know me, and have to produce picture ID,” says David Irvine, a one-time Republican legislator, Davis County GOP chairman and retired U.S. Army brigadier general.
But no one’s to be trusted in this post-apocalyptic Republican vision of democracy.
When Utah lawmakers launched their crusade for voter ID, their motivations were no more pure than those of Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, who acknowledged in June that his state’s new voter-ID bill was drafted “to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania” by suppressing poor and minority voters—traditional Democratic voting blocs.
In Utah, restricting voter rights started with illegal immigrants. Rather than openly admit that they wanted to give Republicans a better shot at the polls, some Utah conservatives insisted they simply wanted to crack down on migrant workers. In 1999, lawmakers had agreed with Rep. David Ure, a Kamas dairy farmer and rancher who wanted to allow undocumented workers to apply for Utah driver’s licenses. At the time, the policy was meant to keep more drivers safe and make doing business easier for Utah farmers. It was an unusual moment of humanity and common sense. But it stuck in the craw of conservatives.
The campaign to repeal it began almost immediately. And in 2005, lawmakers got the evidence they needed: a legislative analyst’s audit that showed the state had issued 95,000 licenses and identification cards to undocumented workers. Nearly 400 of those had registered to vote. Fourteen actually managed to cast ballots. Republicans saw a Mexican plot to take over Utah’s government. And a convenient little voter-fraud scandal was born.
Nationally, conservatives have used the same dubious claims of widespread cheating to justify restricting voter rights. Five states have cut back on early-voting windows. Kansas and Alabama passed laws that require voters to show proof of citizenship before registering.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott attempted to purge voter rolls of 2,700 noncitizens. Most were minorities. Only a few were actually ineligible to vote. And the Justice Department has challenged Scott’s purges. But
Republicans still achieved their goal of intimidating voters. If even a few eligible voters are too confused or scared to go to the polls, mission accomplished.
In Utah, lawmakers yanked driver’s licenses in 2005 and eventually replaced them with driver privilege cards that can’t be used as identification. But GOP legislators were still on edge. It took four more years before conservatives managed to change decades of practice to require Utah voters to flash ID at polling stations.
But Utah’s rule has not faced the challenges other states’ laws have. Despite the best efforts of conservatives who wanted to require nothing short of a drug test, fingerprints and the Pledge of Allegiance, the voter-ID law was tempered by more reasonable hands. By allowing Utahns to use other forms of identification, the state has avoided the lawsuits that have derailed other voter-ID laws.
“We have a few other options [for identification]. That’s a good thing,” says Marina Lowe, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. “That other provision makes it harder to challenge.”
Still, there’s a feeling among lawmakers that rank-and-file voters aren’t quite worthy of casting ballots.
“There’s a sense that not everybody should be able to vote,” Lowe says. But, “we are entitled to vote by virtue of being citizens. People forget that voting is a right and not a privilege.”
Utah lawmakers have not stopped at requiring ID. A few years ago, Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson tossed around—seriously—the idea of dumping the 17th Amendment, which allows voters to directly elect their senators. And, in an effort to quash Utahns for Ethical Government’s ethics initiative, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell rejected the electronic signatures they’d collected for their petitions.
“The Legislature hates the initiative process, so it has additional impetus to make things onerous—in the guise of ballot integrity,” Irvine says. The initiative was declared dead two years ago. Apparently, making it easier for citizens to write their own laws—especially when lawmakers won’t—threatens democracy.
Clearly, Utah legislators don’t trust the voters. But with a strain of undemocratic thinking lingering on Capitol Hill, voters shouldn’t trust them, either.
Rebecca Walsh is a longtime Utah reporter and columnist who currently works in Palm Springs, Calif.