As informed liberals know, voters across the country have been losing their constitutionally guaranteed right to elect their representatives thanks to Republicans, ALEC, and a host of other nefarious conservative organizations like the National Center for Public Policy. Having been forced to give up on poll taxes and literacy tests, Republicans have turned to new methods of voter suppression. These include restrictions on early voting, same day registration, and most commonly, voter ID laws. Other tactics to dampen voting have also become legal, such as Florida’s laws that discourage individuals and organizations from registering people to vote by putting criminal and/or financial penalties in place if registration forms are not turned in within ridiculously short periods of time. While the only response that makes sense long term is to overturn these laws, there are some steps that can be taken in the interim.
In a democracy, you want the maximum level of participation you can get from the citizenry. The only time you don’t want as many people voting as possible is if those people are going to vote against your party on a consistent basis. Hence, you have the highly motivated Republican Party pulling out all the stops to eliminate the chances that more Americans have a say in their government; they know that when voters turn out in high numbers, they are likely to lose. The result has been the slew of laws passed since 2003, and especially since 2010, to restrict voting rights.
There have been 176 bills introduced in 41 states to restrict voting rights just since 2011. As a result, 32 states now require some form of ID to vote. Of these, 14 states have implemented particularly strict photo ID laws that require individuals to obtain birth certificates, marriage licenses, or other documentation to substantiate their identity prior to obtaining the ID. These states have included provisions that particularly target college students by rejecting students IDs or out-of-state licenses as legitimate forms of ID. According to the Brennan Center, about 10% of voters, or more than 5 million people, do not have the photo IDs required. We know that this was never what the Founding Fathers intended, since they never even conceived of the possibility of photography, let alone demanding that people have it prior to voting.
The excuses are always the same. There are the tired analogies about how IDs are required for buying beer, driving a car, or boarding a plane, so why not require them for voting? It doesn’t seem to occur to conservatives that none of these activities is a constitutionally specified right. Then of course there are the unsupported claims of voter fraud. Again the Brennan Center for Justice has the facts. Nearly every case of alleged voter fraud can be traced to clerical errors, innocent voter mistakes, and “bad matching.” Bad matching occurs when lists of voters are compared to check for “dead” voters or double voting. Often when this is done, it can appear that a “dead” person is voting until further investigation is done to show that there are actually two people with the same name. When all of the research is done, the results reveal that voter fraud is extremely rare. More importantly, the only form of voter fraud that photo ID prevents is the impersonation of another person while voting, and the Brennan Center describes this as “an occurrence more rare than getting struck by lightning.”
Despite having no justifiable cause to restrict voting, Republicans have managed to convince the American people that this is somehow a pressing issue. Though the source is a recent Fox News poll, a national random survey found fully 70% of Americans supported voter ID laws as “necessary to prevent voter fraud.” When asked if the laws potentially disenfranchise minorities, only 34% said yes. It’s an embarrassing case of a nation duped again by Republican manipulation. More so, because the reality is that the experts on voting know exactly what the Republicans who are writing the anti-voting laws know: these new laws intentionally and disproportionately disenfranchise minority, low-income, young, and disabled voters, the very citizens who are more likely to vote Democratic.
In places like Minnesota, the voter ID laws are being put up to the public for a vote. With the current sentiments of the American people tilting strongly in favor of voter ID laws, there is a chance that even the progressive citizens of Minnesota will opt to require them. While this may sound like democracy on the face of it, constitutionally protected rights or other civil rights up should never be put up for popular vote. That’s the point of their being rights. The courts may still play a role such as in Wisconsin where their voter ID law has been placed on hold pending the outcome of legal action. In Pennsylvania, 93 year-old Viviette Applegate is suing for the right to vote after her ID was stolen and state officials can’t find her birth certificate. Despite voting for the past 60 years, she is currently prevented from voting under current Pennsylvania laws. However, if these matters go to our current Supreme Court, given their previous rulings, there’s no promise that the civil rights of voters will be upheld.
This means that action has to be taken to mitigate the damage until more overarching responses to voter disqualification can be made. A new report entitled, “Got ID? Helping Voters Get Voter Identification,” has been issued by several civil rights organizations including Common Cause, Demos, Fair Elections Legal Network, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This report includes steps that need to be taken to ensure that the next election is not stolen by Republicans using their suppression tactics.
The most important recommendations in the report have to do with changing efforts to “Get Out the Vote” into a longer term commitment. Instead of simply getting people to the polls on Election Day, activists have to begin identifying all of the people who need IDs. In Wisconsin, this was done by the Wisconsin Voices program which formed a relationship with the Department of Motor Vehicles, obtained a list of residents with driver’s licenses, and then compared the list to voter rolls. By this process, 1.3 million people in Wisconsin were identified that may need IDs to vote. The next step is to help people to obtain birth certificates or marriage licenses necessary to acquire IDs. Then, there is frequently a need to help arrange transportation to the site that issues IDs (usually the DMV). This can all be a long process, and the election is only 5 months away.
The best remedy is complete retraction of the voter suppression laws, but in the meantime whatever can be done to alleviate the harm they cause must be done. For people who care about democracy, “Get Out the Vote” efforts will be more challenging than ever before. The “Got ID” report offers a guide to advocates to begin acting now, and with so much at stake in the next election, it is urgent to begin using these strategies today.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.