Once upon a time, in the dark ages of American politics, white Southerners conspired to prevent blacks from voting by passing a series of restrictive voter registration laws that included such things as poll taxes and literacy tests. These practices were outlawed by Congress with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The lineal descendents of the people who tried to restrict black suffrage are back. Their new tactic is to require a picture ID to be shown by anyone seeking to vote. An Indiana law imposing such a requirement has been challenged, and its fate will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case set for argument early next year. Challenging the adoption of this and other voter photo ID laws is the single biggest civil rights issue facing the country today.
Let’s take a close look at the Indiana law passed on a straight party line vote by the state’s Republican legislature and signed into law by its Republican governor.
The Indiana law requires that a prospective voter show a current photo ID that has been issued by the United States or by the State of Indiana. It must have an expiration date, and the name on the document must conform "to the name in the individual’s voter registration record.”
This sounds reasonable on its face. Not so. This law in fact discriminates against people who do not drive and do not otherwise need a state-issued photo ID. Who are we talking about? Elderly, disabled, poor and minority voters, to be specific. Most of these coincidentally are Democrats.
According to the brief submitted to the Supreme Court by the individuals challenging the constitutionality of this Indiana law, the statute clearly is aimed straight at these groups. The brief notes that “About 12% of voting-age Americans lack a driver’s license. And about 11% of voting-age United States citizens -- more than 21 million individuals -- lack any form of current government-issued photo ID. That 11% figure grows to 15% for voting-age citizens earning less than $35,000 per year, 18% for citizens at least 65 years old, and 25% for African-American voting-age citizens.” This is what is called in the law a “disparate effect.”
What’s the other side of the argument? An amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of a group of Indiana and Southern state election officials notes, “Political power is, unfortunately, a proven inducement to corruption. As James Madison noted in Federalist 51, men are not angels and sound government must be structured in light of that unfortunate, but realistic, understanding." Madison, of course, helped draft our Constitution, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes. The government-sanctioned racial discrimination of our founding fathers took a civil war and almost 200 years to reverse.
The peculiar nature of all this is that no one can cite examples of in-person voter fraud, which is what a photo ID theoretically is designed to prevent. The only examples of voter fraud ever cited involve absentee ballots where no photo ID would be necessary.
Trying to impose a photo ID requirement as a condition to vote is a step backward. It is an effort that will suppress the vote of minorities and the elderly. It has been vigorously opposed by all the civil rights organizations in the country and by fair-minded people of both parties.
We should be doing everything possible to make it easier for eligible persons to vote in this country, rather than making it more difficult. The United States has one of the lowest percentages of voter participation rates in the world. Every time we erect barriers to casting votes, we erode our image as a great bastion of democracy.
There is no question that anyone involved in voter fraud should be prosecuted. But you don’t eliminate voter fraud by making it harder for honest people to cast their votes. There are plenty of other ways to ensure that the person who shows up to vote is the person on the registration rolls and not someone else. Establishing a system that discriminates against low income, elderly and minority voters is not a reasonable response to this particular problem.
Many middle class and wealthy white people can’t understand why someone would not have a current photo ID. These are the same people who didn’t understand why poor blacks and the elderly weren’t able to get out of New Orleans before Katrina hit. It was because many of these unfortunate victims of the storm didn’t have a car and, of course, also didn’t need a driver's license with a photo ID.
This is not the bad old days when the government tacitly or explicitly excluded blacks and others from the polls. Let’s hope the Supreme Court doesn’t take a big step back in time.