“Government of the people, by the people, for the people….” With these now familiar words, Abraham Lincoln expressed the very essence of American democracy: every citizen has a right to engage in the determination of his government through his vote: one man, one vote. Americans have spent over 200 years affirming that right, extending it to former slaves, women, and naturalized citizens. We have fought many wars to defend our form of democracy and the rights afforded us by the Constitution, including the right to vote. So why now, in the enlightened 21st century, do we see an attempt to exclude a significant portion of our citizens from that right? Shouldn’t we be working to make it easier for all citizens to vote?
Yet, as many as 33 states have enacted laws that require voters to show ID’s to vote this November. This is only the beginning. Across the country we have seen the passage of other laws allowing voters rolls to be purged, requiring massive re-registration, cutbacks on the number of days and hours for early voting, limits on voter registration drives, or long-familiar voting places changed indiscriminately, all in the name of preventing massive voter fraud and protecting the integrity of our voting process. For a complete summary of the current voter identification requirements link on the National Conference of State Legislatures website on Voter Identification Requirements.
So, first, let’s look at the issue of voter fraud. Does it really exist? Voter fraud does occur occasionally through impersonation or voting for a dead person, but not in significant enough numbers to sway even a local election. Most voter fraud of any significance, as seen in other countries, is the result of stuffing ballot boxes, often absentee ballots. Photo ID laws do nothing to affect fraud using absentee ballots. Our election system already contains a series of checks and balances both before and after the voting process. Impersonating someone, living or dead is already a crime in every state. Other forms of voter fraud such as paying someone to vote, threatening a voter or other forms of intimidation, or destroying ballots are all governed by existing federal and state laws. A massive effort to organize a bunch of people going from poll-to-poll voting more than once, or an effort to get non-citizens to vote in sufficient numbers to make a difference in an election has never happened and would be easy to detect.
In Ohio, a statewide survey found four instances of ineligible persons voting or attempting to vote in 2002 and 2004 out of 9,078,728 votes cast – a rate of 0.00004%. Despite the invocation of fraud as support for the new Georgia law, Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox has stated that she could not recall one documented case of voter fraud relating to the impersonation of a registered voter at the polls during her ten-year tenure as an election official. Nationwide, since October 2002, 86 individuals have been convicted of federal crimes relating to election fraud (including several offenses not remedied by ID requirements), while 196,139,871 ballots have been cast in federal general elections. Statistically, Americans are more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning.
Now, let’s look at the most well known of these requirements – laws requiring presentation at the polls of a government issued photo ID. So what’s all the fuss? Doesn’t every citizen have some form of photo ID? The answer to this question is no. It is estimated that over ten percent of the eligible voters in the country do not have a government issued photo ID. A disproportionate number of these voters are elderly, the poor, young voters, voters with disabilities, and Afro-Americans. 18 percent of elderly citizens do not have a government-issued photo ID. 15 percent of voters earning less than $35,000 a year do not have a photo ID. 18 percent of citizens aged 18-24 do not have a government-issued ID with their current address and name. 10 percent of voters with disabilities do not have a photo ID. 25 percent of African-American citizens of voting age do not have a current, government-issued ID.
I believe the number is significantly higher when you consider how many Americans only have an expired driver’s license or one without a current address. Fewer than three percent of Wisconsin’s students have driver’s licenses listing their current address. When I moved to North Carolina, it took three trips to the Social Security office to obtain the state’s required documentation and another whole day trying to find a Department of Motor Vehicles License center without a line three hours long. A tough row to hoe if you don’t have transportation, can’t miss work, or are disabled, elderly, or infirm.
This concept of disenfranchisement of the poor and minorities is not new. I grew up in the South where voter suppression was thinly disguised by systems requiring literacy tests or poll taxes and terrible incidents of violent intimidation. Our history is littered with people beaten and killed simply trying to help minorities be able to vote. Finally, such laws were struck down, violence was suppressed, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. Many hoped that the days of attack on a person’s right to vote were over.
Sadly, there are always those who fear the electorate. This time the tool of exclusion is not literacy, it’s not a few dollars in poll taxes, it’s a new door slammer – wearing the sheep’s clothing of a photo ID and cleaning up voter registration by matching databases – more appropriately called list purging. Proponents of strict voter identification laws say “Mexico requires a photo ID and a thumbprint” or “You really can’t function in life without one anyway?” Tell that to a 93-year old, wheel chair bound woman, who had no driver’s license or birth certificate since she was born at home. Tell that to the eighteen- year old son supporting his mother and six brothers and sisters who rides the bus to work every day. Tell that to the homeless veteran who doesn’t have a place to sleep much less a car or a driver’s license. Does anyone really believe that multiple trips to the local DMV and the cost of obtaining a driver’s license are not significant deterrents?
So why the sudden rush to change voting laws? The proponents’ public reasoning is the pressing need to protect us from massive voter fraud. What are they afraid of — hordes of undocumented aliens or long lines of elderly rushing the voting machines? The reality is they’re afraid of how these targeted groups of citizens will vote. These are the same folks who piously tout their integrity, righteousness, and love of America. Those who espoused the Jim Crow Laws of the 1900’s probably professed to love their country, too-that didn’t make their policies or their tactics any less repulsive to the tenets of democracy or basic decency. If adopted, restrictive photo ID laws will fundamentally change the political landscape for decades, disenfranchising millions of eligible voters — plain and simple. It is a highly financed, countrywide effort to make the most important right in a democracy – the right to vote, unavailable to a large segment of the populace. Coupled with purging of voter lists, restricting voting days, and the inevitable physical intimidation at polling places, we are likely to see an election that is as limited in turnout as those before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We have heard and will continue to hear a lot of rhetoric about “democracy” and “democratic principles” during this year’s Presidential elections. There is nothing more “democratic” than the principle that each and every citizen of this country has the right to vote. Any attempt to suppress or inhibit this fundamental right should be shouted down by every citizen – Republican, Democrat, or Independent. How can a major political party have as a part of its platform a call to take away the right to vote of millions of America’s citizens? The party of Lincoln has him turning over in his grave.
Instead of puffing out chests about preventing non-existent fraud we should be decrying the fact that people don’t vote in this country. We should be doing everything in our power to make it easier and more convenient. Let’s find ways for all citizens to become more active in their citizenship: better education in our schools, fewer language barriers, voter registration drives, new technology for voting-to name a few. After Gore v. Bush, didn’t both parties promise to fix our electoral system to make it easier for everyone to vote? Instead, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 is being used to conduct voter purges that are discriminatory and are driving eligible voters off the rolls through no fault of their own. Instead, of pointing to Mexico as a “shining example” let’s look toward Australia where over 80% of their voting populace vote.
Even, if we give the proponents the benefit of the doubt, that they really are fearful about voter fraud, I ask: Isn’t there a better way to prevent fraud than disenfranchising over ten percent of the voting population and even greater numbers for the elderly, minorities, students, and the disabled. Don’t you realize the price you pay for suppression is lack of validation? If you win the election by stealing it by only letting people who agree with you vote, are you truly representative? What type of example are we setting for emerging democracies when you advocate the vote be only available to a select few? Are we not becoming like the tyrannies we have fought over the last century? Are you merely a beneficiary of the very fraud you claim to want to prevent? Even if your motives are pure, doesn’t the result of your actions make you ashamed?
Occasionally we come to a crossroad in our country’s history. Will we stand idly by, making a speech here and there, all the while watching our democratic process slip backwards toward the time when only a privileged few decided how we are governed? Tyranny begins with small steps. Inch by inch, our rights are eroded. All in the name of protecting us, but eroded just the same until, we wake up one morning, and find we are no longer free. Wake up! The most fundamental right we have in this country is under attack, and before long it won’t be some impersonator being denied the right to vote. It will be you.