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Suppressing the Vote: New Voter ID Laws

by Ralph Scharnau

The great majority of the amendments to the Constitution either assures the recognition of individual rights or extends the franchise.  But we are now in an ugly season of intolerance against workers’ rights, women’s rights, and the topic here, voting rights.  The 2010 elections revealed that Republicans won control of both chambers in 26 states, up from 14, and they introduced a wave of voting restrictions bills.

Since the last presidential election, Republicans in about 30 states introduced legislation making state-approved photo-ID cards the most common new requirement to vote.  States with proposed or passed voter ID laws include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.  In Texas, military IDs and handgun licenses are acceptable but not college IDs.  In Tennessee, Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old black woman, was denied a voter ID because she couldn’t produce a copy of her marriage license.

Republican state legislators argue that the new laws will stop widespread voter impersonation fraud, but a five year crackdown by President Bush’s Department of Justice yielded only 86 voter fraud convictions.  Most of these were not for voter fraud that could have been stopped by a voter ID because they involved confusion about eligibility to vote and clerical errors.  There are no shadowy bands of ineligible voters roving from polling place to polling place to affect election results.

Investigations into alleged voter fraud consistently show that the problem is not fraudulent voters but bad data.  Sometimes the birth dates are incorrect and names are misspelled.  People who share names or birthdays or sometimes both get flagged as “fraud.”  And, most commonly, updating state databases become difficult when voters move or pass away.

Studies estimate that approximately 10 percent of voting-age citizens, or more than 20 million people, lack a government-issued photo ID.  This will keep an estimated 5 million eligible voters from the polls in the fall.

The discriminatory impact of restrictive voter ID laws becomes very clear for certain groups.  The disenfranchisement of eligible voters falls disproportionately on minorities, the elderly, women, the young, the poor, students, and people with disabilities.  African Americans and Latinos, for example, are twice as likely as Caucasians to lack a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.  For the elderly, 18 percent lack a current, government issued ID.  The percentage of those without an ID climbs even higher for young people, aged 18 to 25.  It is no coincidence that these folks tend to vote Democratic.

In addition to requiring photo voter identification, other suppressive initiatives include drastically reducing early and absentee voting days, attacking Election Day registration, and putting onerous restrictions on civic groups attempting to register voters.  These laws enacted by Republican-dominated state legislatures do not respond to a specific problem, but rather they appear to be part of a well-funded nationwide effort to prevent voters from fully participating in the electoral process.

The financial burden unnecessarily placed on state budgets, moreover, drives up spending on elections by as much as 50%.  Meanwhile states are slashing government jobs and vital funding to important programs in health care or public education to make ends meet.

The Republican-sponsored voter ID bills have been defeated in some states and where enacted face legal challenges.  Additionally, the Department of Justice is reviewing some of the new state laws for possible violations of the 1965Voting Rights Act.

Requiring official photo ID and other restrictive measures constitute exclusionary policies premised on a phantom menace.  It won’t fix real problems, but it will sacrifice real people’s fundamental right to vote.  We need to ensure the protection of all eligible voters throughout the electoral process.

Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta.  He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University.  His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque.  Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.

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