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Voting is a right, not a crime
by John O'Hara

Times Union
Oct. 23, 2012

Read article

I remember watching the evening news with my family in horror as Alabama Gov. George Wallace unleashed his state troopers upon African-Americans just because they wanted to register to vote in the 1960s. From our home in Brooklyn, it seemed like it was all happening in another world. We were Kennedy Democrats, and we felt that things would get better. A half-century later, the problem persists.

Since 2010, 30 states have passed what are benignly referred to as "Voter ID" laws. Until 2006, no state required a person to produce ID to vote Almost all of the states that enacted these laws are controlled by Republicans.

In some states, courts have called these laws into question recognizing that they are designed to prevent the elderly, poor and people of color from voting. Some states also have limited early voting and added other restraints that experts claim could reduce voter participation in the Nov. 6 election by as much as 10 percent.

The days of state troopers using attack dogs on voters are over. They were too confrontational, too messy and, in the end, they backfired. The smoother way is the Republican way — make laws that allow the politically appointed registrars to purge the list of "undesirables."

This isn't George Wallace's Alabama. It's worse, and it reflects a sign of the times.

Florida election officials are reporting that 10 counties have been getting voter registration forms with "suspicious signatures." An investigation is in the works, which means somebody almost certainly will get prosecuted for those registration forms. Registering to vote is now probable cause.

Somewhere in one of those 30 states, an example will be made of a low-level worker at the elections board who won't stop that elderly person from casting their vote. The election worker, most likely one of the working poor, will be charged with a crime. As most people do, he or she will eventually plead guilty. Prosecutors look at poor people as easy targets. In the end, certain people will decide that voting just isn't worth going to jail over.

There have even been cases where prosecutors brought criminal charges for "false registration and illegal voting." In the 1872 presidential election, five women in Rochester went to the registrar on Election Day and demanded that they be allowed to vote. Women were not allowed to vote then, but the registrar let the women cast their vote. The newspapers reported this historic event. Days later, the registrar and the five women were arrested. The registrar and four out of the five women pleaded guilty. The fifth woman refused to take a deal. Instead she went to trial and was convicted. That woman was Susan B. Anthony.

One hundred and twenty-five years later, another New Yorker was prosecuted for illegal voting. In 1996, I was picked out of 1 million voters and indicted on felony charges that could have landed me in prison for 28 years.

I didn't vote twice in the same day, nor did I vote from a sham address. I voted from a place that was not my "principal and permanent" residence.

It was the first time anyone had been prosecuted on a voting residency issue, and the first time a person in Brooklyn was tried three times. The saga endured for years. I managed to avoid going to prison, but I was disbarred from the practice of law, confined by probation, fined $20,000 and ordered to perform 1,500 hours of community service.

America has more people in prison than any other country — 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prison population.

All of those people are there because a "law" was violated. Laws have consequences, and voting should not be a crime.

John K. O'Hara was reinstated to the practice of law in 2009 and still lives in Brooklyn.