Are Voter-ID Laws Racist?

I received an odd phone call in the afternoon of Election Day 2010. “I’m calling to let everyone know that Gov. O’Malley and President Obama have been successful,” the robo-voice said. “Relax. Everything is fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight.”

At the time, the call struck me as strange—the polls in the Maryland governor’s race, in which Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley was running for reelection, were open for three more hours, and Obama wasn’t even on the ballot.

Turns out, the calls were ordered by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, and they were aimed at voters in Baltimore and my home county, Prince George’s, the two largest majority-black jurisdictions in the state. A jury recently convicted the GOP campaign manager for what prosecutors called criminal acts intended to suppress black voter turnout.

Across the country, efforts to inhibit turnout in certain populations have been popping up all over. Some of them seem like Nixonian dirty tricks, such as the Milwaukee election material that warned that anyone found guilty of even a traffic violation was not eligible to vote, or the flyer supposedly from a local election board telling Republicans to vote on Tuesday and Democrats to vote on Wednesday.

But those illicit efforts pale next to the far-reaching campaign to change voting laws for 2012. Such changes include restrictions on voter registration drives, reductions in early voting, cutbacks in the voting rights of people who have finished their sentences for felonies, and—most pervasive—voter ID laws. In all, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, more than 5 million voters could be affected by these laws. In 2011, photo ID laws were introduced in 34 states and enacted in eight.

AT FACE VALUE, requiring voters to produce a government-issued photo ID at the polling place seems quite reasonable, and significant majorities in polls support such requirements. After all, what’s more basic to democracy than making sure that voters are who they say they are and that elections are fair and free of taint?

But is voter fraud really a problem? The Justice Department, under President George W. Bush, conducted a five-year effort to find and prosecute improper voting—and turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to affect federal elections. A separate report by the Brennan Center found that the type of voter fraud that these voter ID laws would address is “more rare than death by lightning,” while The Washington Post called the laws a “response to no known problem.” The Minnesota ACLU went so far as to offer a $1,000 reward for any example of voter impersonation in the state in the last decade. At press time, there were no takers.

People concerned about the new voter laws contend that the ID requirements erect an unnecessary barrier for some voters, which raises an obvious question: Why is it so difficult for some people to get a photo ID? After all, you just pop down to the motor vehicle bureau, show your birth certificate or passport and a few utility bills from your house to prove your stable address, and voila! But for many people, it’s not quite so easy, starting with the birth certificate, which many poor people and recent immigrants may not have at their fingertips. And, of course, people without photo IDs don’t have driver’s licenses, and likely don’t have a car, so getting to government offices—especially in rural areas without public transportation—can be a complicated, time-consuming process, often requiring time off work and the payment of fees.

Voter ID laws don’t affect all people equally. The Brennan Center found that the percentage of voting-age citizens lacking photo IDs was significantly higher among African Americans, people aged 65 or older, and low-income Americans than among the voting-age population as a whole. Regardless of intention, the result of these restrictions on voting is to disenfranchise people of color at higher rates—and the Voting Rights Act prohibits any election rule or practice that disproportionately affects minority voters.

It might not be pure coincidence that the groups most affected by voter ID laws and similar restrictions tend to vote Democrat and the backers of such laws are mostly Republicans. For people of faith, though, this is not a partisan issue, but rather a simple matter of fairness and justice. Who gets included in our democratic processes says everything about who we are as a people, and plays an important role in determining the direction of our public policies.

The right to vote shouldn’t be taken for granted, and expansion of that right to include people at the margins of society has never come without a struggle. It took nearly a century for this country to enshrine African Americans’ right to vote in the Constitution, and another century to back that up with laws such as the Voting Rights Act. Now is not the time to start stripping away those rights to counter an imaginary threat.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.

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