The Pernicious Nature of Voter ID Laws

I was recently perusing the news, when I noticed this little blip from MSN.com about the GOP candidate for governor in Arkansas:

Asa Hutchinson, who won the Republican nomination in the race for Arkansas governor Tuesday, forgot his ID when he went to the polls, despite backing the state's new voter ID law, according to the Associated Press.

Christian Olson, a spokesman for the Republican candidate, told the AP that Hutchinson believed the situation was a "little bit of an inconvenience" and that a staffer retrieved his ID so he could cast a ballot. Olson said the former congressman still believes voters should be required to show an ID.

And it struck me that while it is ironically amusing it is that Hutchinson forgot his own identification, it also highlights the inequity caused by the law. For someone like Hutchinson, who is well-connected and privileged, forgetting his identification card is a minor inconvenience. However, for people of color, students and/or people from low income communities, it represents real barriers to voting access and even more so, these barriers exist by design. These ID laws result in voter suppression particularly against groups that are likely to vote for progressive candidates and their use is for political gains, rather than to combat any real problem.

Let me talk about the case of Pennsylvania. Tom Corbett is in the last days of his governorship (at least in my dreams) and recently, two pieces of conservative legislation have been struck down by judicial order. The law banning same sex marriage and the law requiring state identification to vote were both deemed unconstitutional. He has decided not to appeal these decisions despite his long term opposition to same sex marriage and his support of the use of voter identification. I'm not sure why he is not appealing these decisions (probably because it isn't advantageous to his career) but I am glad he is not fighting the judicial rulings.

The reason why the state id laws were overturned in January 2014, according to the New York Times, was because Judge McGinley found that the "the law hampered the ability of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians to cast their ballots, with the burden falling most heavily on elderly, disabled and low-income residents, and that the state's reason for the law — that it was needed to combat voter fraud — was not supported by the facts." Even more strongly, as quoted in the Nation, Judge McGinley highlighted that in Pennsylvania, the state "wholly failed to show any evidence of in-person voter fraud." He added that, "Certainly a vague concern about voter fraud does not rise to a level that justifies the burdens construction here. Therefore, this Court does not find in-person voter fraud a compelling interest the Voter ID Law was designed to serve."

Judge McGinley's ruling here echoes much of the criticism of these voter identification laws. They are bureaucratic nightmares designed to combat a non-existent problem. It is interesting how these small government republicans change their tune when it comes to disenfranchising voters—especially when these voters are likely to vote for the Democratic party. In the case of Pennsylvania, the political nature of the voter identification laws was not mere conjecture on the part of Democrats. According to PoliticsPA.com, Pennsylvania's House Republican leader, Mike Turzai was quoted as saying:

Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it's done. First pro-life legislation – abortion facility regulations – in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.

Well, Romney didn't win partly because of significant community activism that resulted a last minute ruling delaying the voter identification law. However, I remember none of us knew which way it would go in the rush up to the 2012 elections.

During that time, I remember talking to a woman a lot about this issue, someone I will call Mary. Mary was an African American woman in her 60s, who had worked in Pennsylvania for 30 years. She was very worried and anxious that she would not be able to vote in the presidential election, which would be the first time she had not voted in her adult life. Now here is a woman who had paid into the social security system for over 40 years but according to state identification laws, possessing a social security card, which was tied to a long history of work, was not enough to prove that she was a citizen and therefore eligible to vote.

Now, we spent a lot of time trying to resolve her problem. The state told her that she needed her birth certificate to get a state identification card. Sure, she'd try that tactic. But the problem is that when she went to the hospital where she was born, they told her she needed a state or federal issued identification card to gain access to her birth certificate. The hospital said her relatives could sign an affidavit but they refused. She was not close to her family of origin, who would not go to the hospital for her and her long term friends with whom she had formed a family were not considered sufficient to confirm her identity. She was frustrated at every turn.

I remember she talked about how particularly poignant it was that her parents had lived in the south under Jim Crow Laws and were often blocked from voting until the Voter's Rights Act of 1965 was passed. (Many parts of this act were invalidated during a ruling in 2013, making it easier for states to pass voter id laws). Her parents had instilled in her the importance of participating in the democratic process because they fought so hard to gain the right to vote. They weren't alive to see their daughter potentially being disenfranchised in 2012.

Leading up to the elections, the state began to issue special voting identification cards for people who could not meet the burden of proof required to get a state identity card. And then, of course, the entire issue of state identifications were delayed until after the election.

While Pennsylvanian voters were spared from potentially losing their voting rights, many other states still have voter identification laws on the books. According to the NCSL, 31 states have some sort of voter identification law, which does not include Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, whose laws were struck down by judicial order. In the case of Arkansas, where our friend Gubernatorial Candidate Asa Hutchinson is running, the voter law was found to be unconstitutional but the judge suspended his ruling and won't block the law from being enforced during this election cycle. Among the states with voter id laws, the strictest ones are in Texas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and of course, Arkansas. These states require photo identification. Voters without proper identification have to use a provisional ballot and then take additional steps to prove their identity after they vote. Voters in these states are at the highest risk of being disenfranchised.

Voter identification laws are not neutral laws used to combat a real problem but rather it is a bureaucratic nightmare used to deny citizens of their basic right to vote. The problem of voter suppression reached national headlines in 2012 and while it has faded from the headlines, it remains a very real problem across the country. If you want to read further, I recommend Bill Moyer's coverage of voter suppression and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

image from politic365.com