The Matter of Voter ID Laws

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Since this is a presidential election year in the United States, it’s not unusual to hear about voter ID laws which require some form of identification in order for a person to register to vote. As of 2016, 33 states have passed such laws. And since 2012, 17 states have new voter restrictions in place. The voter requirements in these states but the most popular measure in recent years is requiring citizens to show a photo ID to vote (though some may simply require a utility bill or bank statement). At the federal level, the 2002 Help America Vote Act required voter ID for all new voters in federal elections who registered by mail and who didn’t provide a driver’s license number or the last 4 digits of their Social Security number that was matched against government records. Proponents of these laws argue that voter ID laws are a common sense effort and places little burden on voters. They also have considerable support among Americans from all party lines. However, the laws have been subject to considerable controversy and various lawsuits at both state and federal levels. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned parts of the Voting Rights Act that required approval for voter registration changes such as Voter ID laws, making it more difficult for voters to challenge them. Nevertheless, federal courts continue to rule on voter registration cases and there are sure to be more lawsuits to come. Since the right to vote has been enshrined as a fundamental right for all Americans 18 or over, I believe that voter ID laws are nothing but voter suppression tactics that should have no place in the democratic process.

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Since the 1870s, African Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities in the South have been known to be targets of disenfranchisement, especially under segregation. In fact, this was a main reason why we had the Civil Rights Movement in the first place. Nevertheless, many states that have voter ID laws have had a history of disenfranchising minorities as well as high levels of racial stereotyping among whites. Not only that, but many older blacks in the South may not be able to get a photo ID because they were born during segregation and don’t have birth certificates.

Voter ID laws are racist.– Anyone who knows about American history could tell you that voting restrictions have a long history with racism. In fact, since after Reconstruction in the South, white Southerners would institute a series of laws, constitutions, and practices that were deliberately used to disenfranchise black citizens from registering to vote and voting. Measures used to disenfranchise blacks consisted of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, eight box laws, white primaries, and others. Were they constitutional? No, because the 15th Amendment stated that voters shouldn’t be discriminated by race. Did the federal government do anything to stop it at the time? Not until after WWII. Nevertheless, many of these disenfranchisement measures in the South were a major reason why the Civil Rights Movement existed in the first place which eventually led the federal government to enact the Voting Rights Act as well as the 24th Amendment abolishing the poll tax in national elections. As 2016, as many as 25% of voting age African American citizens 20% of Asian Americans, and 19% of eligible Hispanics, don’t have government issued photo identification, compared to only 8% of their white counterparts. Native Americans have also been fighting a slew of court battles over voter ID laws as well. Not to mention, out of the 33 voter ID states which have laws to prevent voter impersonation, only 6 of them have the same standards applying to absentee voters who usually tend to be whiter and older than their in-person counterparts. Mail-in absentee voter fraud is more common than voter impersonation. African American and Latino voters are known to be disproportionately low income and may not just lack a voter ID but also not be able to procure the underlying documentation necessary to obtain one. Latinos are also among the fastest growing racial demographics in the nation. It doesn’t help that some of the states that have passed voter ID laws have had a history of discriminating against minority voters as well as the fact that many older African Americans in the South simply don’t have a birth certificate due to being born during segregation. This July, a 3 judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law requirements, finding that the new provisions targeted African Americans with “with almost surgical precision,” and that legislators had acted with clear “discriminatory intent” in enacting strict election rules as well as shaping rules based on data about African American registration and voting patterns. There’s also a correlation that the higher the racial stereotyping in a voter ID state among whites, the stricter the voter ID laws. So to compare voter ID laws to Jim Crow is not a stretch, especially since most voter ID proponents tend to be white.

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When it comes to voter ID laws, minority groups, the elderly, the young, and the poor tend to be disproportionately affected by them. This graph from the Brennan Center and Mother Jones shows this.

Voter ID laws are discriminatory against minorities, the poor, elderly, students, and the disabled.-According to the NYU Brennan Center, more than 21 million Americans (or 11% of eligible US citizens) do not have government issued photo identification and a disproportionate number of them are low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, and the elderly. 18% of Americans over 65, 18% of Americans between 18-24, and 15% of those making less than $35,000 a year don’t have voter ID. Aside from possibly disenfranchising minorities, many low income people simply can’t afford the necessary documentation to get an ID or have the time to get one (because a lot of them work long hours and have low job security). Many don’t have any education past high school so sorting out many potential agencies and requirements to get a photo ID can be challenging. Those without a driver’s license in rural areas may not have access to transportation while many senior citizens may not own a computer as well as have birth certificates with erroneous names (since a lot of mistakes were made in old birth certificates. And corrections cost money). College students are often not at their permanent residence during election times, are less likely to drive, and their student ID may not be seen as valid in states like Texas. Then you have many elderly African Americans in the South who can’t get a photo ID because they don’t have a birth certificate on record (due to being born during segregation). Homeless people can’t get an ID because they have no permanent address. Then you have voters who were born in a different state than they lived in now. Obtaining needed documents from another state costs extra money and often requires another agency in another state that the voter may not have lived in for many years. Finally, you have women who’ve changed their legal names after they’ve gotten married or divorced who may have difficulty obtaining ID in states where the name has to exactly match the voting rolls, especially if they’re low income, elderly, or minority. This goes the same for transgender people as well.

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In recent years, states with strict voter ID laws tend to be championed by Republican dominated state legislatures. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has measured that such states tend to have lower voter registration as well as a higher Republican net swing. Sure this might sound biased even though I’ve checked and tried to use a graph from as reputable source as I can.

Voter ID laws are not politically neutral.-Until recently, only a handful of states required voter ID. Today 33 states do. In a recent opinion by US Circuit judge Richard Posner, a Reagan appointee, compared the laws to the poll tax implemented to stop blacks from voting in the Jim Crow Era South. To him the only reason to impose voter ID laws, “is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burdens.” Posner is probably right since many voter ID laws tend to be sponsored by Republicans and passed by Republican dominated state legislatures, especially in swing states where elections are more competitive. One of the strictest and infamous voter ID laws is in Texas where voters must show one of 7 forms of state or federal issued photo ID, with a valid expiration date: a driver’s license, a personal ID card issued by the state, a concealed handgun license, a military ID, citizenship certificate or a passport. And the name must exactly match the one on the voter rolls. So concealed weapons permit fine, but not state issued student ID cards. Clearly there’s political bias here, especially if you consider that Texas is a Republican dominated state that allows guns on college campuses while young people are more likely to vote Democrat. So are racial minorities who consist of a fast growing electorate and poor people. Meanwhile, an older black veteran who showed 3 forms of ID was turned away in 2013. Also, despite being the more common form of voter fraud, only 6 out of the 33 states have voter ID laws pertaining to absentee voters who tend to be older, whiter, and more conservative than the voters most of these laws target. Then there’s the fact Republican politicians have been heard made comments Pennsylvania’s House majority leader Mike Turzai boasting that strict new voting laws would “allow Governor Romney to win” the state in 2012 (though these laws were struck down later). At the same time, a conservative group called True the Vote claimed that Democrats routinely drop off busloads of illegal voters at polling throughout the country despite evidence to the contrary. North Carolina county precinct chairman Don Yelton told the Daily Show in 2013 that if the state’s new voter restriction “hurts a bunch of lazy blacks who just want the government to give them everything, so be it.” So there’s evidence to suggest that conservatives understand that keeping certain kinds of people away from the polls is kind of the point and voter ID laws may have helped conservatives keep liberal-leaning demographics away from the polls amid record low-turnout. Despite that voter ID laws have wide support in the US, bipartisan legislation it is not.

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The vast majority of voter ID laws have been put in place to deter voter impersonation. According to News21, there have only been 10 known cases of this since 2000. More people have been struck by lightning or claimed to see UFOs than commit voter impersonation, a crime you’ve have to be crazy to do.

There is no need to prevent voter fraud.– While proponents of voter ID laws tend to talk about voter fraud like it’s a major crime wave, the mere suggestion that “voter fraud is rampant” earned a “Pants on Fire” rating from Politifact. Most voter ID laws are aimed at voter impersonation of which there were only 31 documented cases in the US from 2000-2014, out of a billion ballots cast, by the way. More people have been struck by lightning or claimed to see UFOs that same period. Proponents may also alleged that registrations of dead and out of state voters as a vulnerability in the US electoral system. After all, Pew cited that there were more than 1.8 million dead voters and 3 million registered in multiple states nationwide. And voter ID supporters fear that motivated individuals could exploit registration irregularities to impersonate dead voters or former residents, casting multiple fraudulent ballots. However, most cases of alleged voter fraud involving dead people have been shown as a result of incorrect matching of voter rolls and death records as well as clerical errors. Not to mention, the basic fact it’s not unusual for multiple people to have the exact same name. Besides, such form of fraud is illogical as the risks such as a $10,000 fine or 5 years in prison far outweigh the benefits of casting an extra vote for the voter’s desired candidate. Besides, voter impersonator takes a lot of effort which according to a Wisconsin judge, “To commit voter-impersonation fraud, a person would need to know the name of another person who is registered at a particular polling place, know the address of that person, know that the person has not yet voted and also know that no one at the polls will realize that the impersonator is not the individual being impersonated.” Someone would have to be absolutely insane to commit something like that because one vote isn’t guaranteed to sway an election. Multiple studies have shown that almost all cases of in person voter fraud are the result of a voter making an honest mistake, and even these are extremely infrequent. Besides, absentee ballot fraud is more common than voter impersonation, but not by much. Then you have proponents claiming about ballot stuffing undocumented immigrants voting, too. But voter ID laws don’t prevent these things and neither are significant problems. Thus, voter fraud is anything but rampant and mostly nonexistent.

An example of a PennDOT ID.

Voter ID law proponents tend to think that getting a state photo ID is relatively easy and free. My experience with getting a photo ID in college taught me quite differently even though I was able to get a ride from my dad (since I don’t have a driver’s license), had all the documentation, and lived near a DMV that was open 5 days a week. Many people who live in voter ID states don’t have the documentation on hand, don’t live near an accessible DMV, and face other obstacles preventing them from obtaining a photo ID. So what may seem easy and free to one person is actually costly and burdensome. Then again, even under the best circumstances, obtaining a photo ID is still pretty damn hard.

Getting a state photo ID card is more difficult than it looks.– When I first got my state photo ID in college (since I don’t have a driver’s license), I was required to have my birth certificate, my Social Security card, and other documentation to show to the DMV. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my Social Security card with me at the time since my parents kept it in the fire safe so we had to go back. Luckily my parents had saved the documentation so I could get one with few problems. After all, the nearest DMV to me is only closed on Sunday, Monday, and holidays, with 8:30 am-4:15 pm for regular business hours, save Thursday when it’s open till 6. Besides, I have parents who could drive me. Still, advocates of voter ID laws make it seem that getting a photo ID is easy for anyone who’s eligible to vote when my firsthand experience tells me that it’s not necessarily the case. And for a rural resident without a driver’s license, I had it easy and under the best circumstances. For thousands of eligible citizens, obtaining a photo ID can be costly and burdensome. Though many states with strict voter ID laws offer a free, these IDs require documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25 in some places or possibly more. Many people in rural areas have trouble accessing ID offices, especially if they don’t have a driver’s license. A 2015 Alabama lawsuit cited a high schooler who couldn’t vote because she lacked a driver’s license. Sure she could get a state issued ID at the nearest DMV like I did. But the nearest DMV to this girl is only open one day per month and she has no access to public transportation to another DMV that’s 40 miles away round trip. But at least she doesn’t live Sauk City, Wisconsin whose DMV office is only open 4 times per year while 25% of Wisconsin’s DMVs are open less than one day per month. If you’re an African American born in the Jim Crow South before 1960, there’s a good chance you don’t have a birth certificate and may need to go to court. If you work in a low wage job, do think your boss would mind if you take several hours off work to get a government issued ID? Most of the time they’d fire you if you try. If you live in another state from the one you were born in, you might have to pay a pretty penny or travel great distance to fetch those records. And if you live in Texas, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that your county has no ID-issuing offices at all, leading some rural residents to travel 100 miles to the nearest location and only a quarter of those offices have extended hours.

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This map shows the costs on voter ID laws in each states with them at the time. Note that many of these states are strapped for cash and can use their funds for better things like education. Basically, voter ID laws cost the government more money to combat a virtually non-existent problem.

Voter ID laws cost taxpayer money.– While many courts have accepted voter ID laws, they’ve only done so as long as the states have key provisions such as making sure the voter ID is free of charge (they’re not), accessible to everyone (they’re not), and that there are public outreach and education efforts to make everyone aware of the new requirements. However, none of this is free to the taxpayer and implementation costs millions of dollars in voter ID states. $20 million on average, in fact, including the state’s price to issue free cards to avoid costly lawsuits, voter education and publicity to inform voters and ensure they aren’t turned away at the polls, and dozens of new costs for state and local officials from updating forms and websites to hiring staff to inspect IDs and handle provisional ballots on Election Day. So enacting these laws aren’t cheap. Add to that the financial costs states are spending to defend them in the courts, too.

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This is a flyer on Pennsylvania’s voter ID law which was passed in 2012 and struck down by a state judge in 2014 who saw it as unconstitutional since it places an undue burden on hundreds of voters. To be fair, even if the main part of the Voter Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, the constitutionality on voter ID laws is not sound.

Voter ID laws are unconstitutional.– The right to vote is protected by more constitutional amendments than any other right we enjoy in the United States along with additional federal and state statutes which guarantee and protect voting rights. Declarations by the Supreme Court state that the right to vote is fundamental because it’s protective of all our other rights and that states can’t value one person’s vote over another. Sure the Supreme Court may have struck down a critical part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this does not mean that voter ID laws are constitutional. While some state IDs are free (though many tend to average $22), the documentation required like passports, driver’s licenses, and birth certificates are often not. And many Americans simply can’t afford to pay for them. Could be an equivalent to a poll tax? Possibly and I know poll taxes go against the 24th Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was struck down by Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley in 2014 as “violative of the constitutional rights of state voters” as well as to place an undue burden on hundreds of already registered voters due to lack of infrastructure and state support for obtaining required IDs.

Rally Marks 1-Year Anniversary Of Supreme Court Decision On Voting Rights Act

Caption: “WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 25: Activists attend a Voting Rights Amendment Act rally in Capitol Hill June 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. The rally marked the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder which held a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional.” In American democracy, voting is a fundamental right and a sacred civic responsibility. Voter ID laws are unfair, disenfranchise people, as well as decrease people’s confidence in the system that some may not show up at the polls.

Voter ID laws violate civil rights and undermine the democratic process.– In democracy, nothing is more fundamental than the right to vote, which is deemed sacred since it gives people perhaps the only political voice they have in elections. Disenfranchisement is to deprive a person of that voice while voter ID essentially disenfranchises people through requirements in a discriminatory fashion and placing unreasonable requirements on individuals for registering or voting. Furthermore, it places a disproportionate burden on millions of voters on an infraction that’s only possible but highly unlikely and unproven. Voter ID laws also lead to lower turnouts since they decrease many voters’ confidence in the system since they’re seen as a way to prevent certain types of voters from casting their ballots. They are unconstitutional and illegal for they discriminate against the poor and racial minorities as well as have been implemented to influence election incomes. These states need to get rid of these oppressive laws which make voting a privilege, not a right which it is.

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