At this critical time in our nation's history, when wider participation by the American people in their own democracy should be encouraged, Republican politicians are instead suppressing that participation by limiting access to the voting booth.
So-called voter ID legislation signed this year in several states has nothing to do with their purported aim of protecting the sanctity of elections and everything to do with concentrating political power in fewer and fewer hands.
As a former prosecutor of election-law violations in Chicago, I know a little something about election fraud. But what I found in years of pursuing cases of ballot abuse is that it almost never involved ordinary citizens who, say, voted when they weren't eligible, voted under an assumed name, or voted multiple times.
Instead, the fraud was almost exclusively perpetrated by political operatives, who stuffed ballot boxes, "lost" ballots, or otherwise manipulated the vote totals in their precincts and wards.
On the unusual occasions when individual voters were involved, they were bribed or intimidated into cooperating with the scheme by a political operative. National and local investigations over the years have confirmed my personal experience.
Since the supposed target of the new laws is a nonexistent problem — systematic or widespread fraud by individual voters — these laws, which require citizens to present a photo ID in order to vote, can only be interpreted as an attempt to further politically marginalize already marginalized populations in our country, including the elderly, the disabled, rural residents, low-income citizens and minorities.
These are the groups who are less likely to have government- issued photo identification, and often face financial and logistical hurdles in trying to obtain it.
While many have voted for years at the same polling place and are well-known to the friends and neighbors who serve as precinct election officials there, they may now be discouraged from exercising their franchise by these onerous new requirements.
In New Hampshire, where a voter ID bill is pending in the legislature but some local clerks posted the proposed law's requirements prematurely for a special election recently, voters were seen turning around at the polling-place door.
These laws can even exacerbate the very problem they are purportedly passed to combat. A clerk in South Carolina has noted that since several of the acceptable forms of ID have no address and yet must be accepted as proof of voter eligibility, the traditional duty of elections officials to ensure that people vote once and only once in their correct districts is actually undermined.
These new ID laws are part of a larger Republican program to limit the franchise of people who are more likely to vote for Democrats, an effort that includes: Suppression of the youth vote by rejecting student ID's as acceptable identification and shortening the early voting periods young people disproportionably use to exercise their franchise; voter-roll purges that target minority voters; and lifetime bans on voting by ex-felons who have paid their debt to society.
The sanctity of the ballot is in no danger in our republic, but the trust and engagement of the American people in their own political system is.
Even as citizens across the Middle East are basking in newfound opportunities for political expression in the warmth of the Arab Spring, Republican politicians in America are limiting democracy with chilling voter suppression laws.
Long ago we should have learned that the problems of democracy are resolved by more democracy, not less.
Means is a national board member of Americans for Democratic Action and a former prosecutor in Cook County, Ill. E-mail: email@example.com.