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Why Common Sense is Wrong on Voter ID

October 25, 2012

I’ve been asked by more than one person to clarify online why voter ID laws are so controversial. To put it simply: they make brilliant sense until you systematically consider the consequences for different groups of people in American society. So, recognizing that the idea of showing ID at the poll is intuitive, simple, and a seeming non-issue; I argue below why I think these laws are not only bad but outright discriminatory.

If you are a reader of Sociofaithful, wondering where the “faithful” is in this, you can skip to the last section of this posting, although I would encourage you to read the whole article. You can also find fairly forceful faith-based voices from the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) here. I try to focus on more direct faith-related issues here, but certain issues are important enough to include regardless of the distance from the core focus of this blog.

The typical arguments for voter ID have basically two embedded questions. First, the why: Shouldn’t we be making sure voter fraud isn’t happening? Second, the common sense appeal: Don’t people (or more specifically, legal voters) already need to have photo ID to do lots of common everyday things? The answers to both are less straightforward than one might expect, at least depending on their social position.

It might be reasonable to expect people might try voter fraud, but there is very little evidence to support it. There are stories of mysterious buses full of people who look like “undocumented immigrants” showing up at polling places and everyone registering to vote on-site, before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. Yet despite the presence of government-paid administrators, site volunteer, and often pollsters, I have not found a single documented instance of this.

Let’s assume that the organizers who share such stories did see buses filled with minorities pull up to polling sites on voting day (I don’t doubt their sincerity, nor do I believe that kind of judgment to be terribly helpful here or ever). Hispanics, the group organizers might fear the most illegal votes from (because of high immigration), make up around 52 million of the U.S.A.’s 312 million residents. Of these, nearly 50% (23.7 million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center) are eligible to vote this year. So, some simple calculations show that around 1 in 13 residents of the U.S.A. is both Hispanic or Latino and eligible to vote in 2012 (11.0% of the nations eligible voters).

Thus, it might be reasonable to expect to see bus-loads of Hispanic people at a polling site from get out the vote efforts, the same way senior centers or colleges try to make it as simple as possible to vote. And many of these will likely be first-time voters, giving both rising rates of eligibility and historically low Latino/Hispanic turnouts. As an aside, the fact that so many eligible voters of all races and ethnicities, but particularly among Latinos, choose not to vote, calls into question the idea of illegally hijacking the vote in itself. The votes of these late registers are less likely to be counted anyway, because many would receive provisional ballots which are not counted until well after election day (and time to verify their eligibility).

International experience suggests too that in-person voter fraud on any large or systematic scale tends to be very difficult to hide. Routinely, a small number of election observers appointed by the international community are able to cite volumes of evidence of such fraud in emerging or contested democracies. So to summarizes the responses to section 1: mechanisms do exists to prevent voter fraud, all indications are that it is rare, and seemingly suspicious events may in fact be indicators of healthy interest in our nation by concerned (minority) citizens rather than causes for alarm.

Now for the second question, one which is even more directly tied to issues of discrimination, institutional racism, cultural differences, and class: Shouldn’t people already have photo identification so they can go about common everyday tasks?

The first step to answering this is to list what tasks in fact require such identification. A basic list includes: driving a motor vehicle, opening a bank account or cashing a check, purchasing controlled substances including alcohol and tobacco, and travelling via airplane or to other nations. It may also be necessary for employment in many jobs within the more formal sectors of the U.S. economy.

The next question is: are there groups of legal, eligible voters, who are more likely not to have need to perform any of the tasks on this list. Two groups do in fact stand out: urban racial/ethnic minorities and the elderly (particularly those who grew up during the aftermath of the great depression).

Many racial and ethnic minorities in the United states, particularly those with long histories of being victims of discrimination (notably African-Americans and American Indians) have cultural distrust of banking and finance systems. In urban areas, where African-American particularly tend to be concentrated, driving is not necessarily an economical means of transportation for many people. Employment arrangements tend to be less formalized and workers (legal ones included) are often paid in cash. Good examples include construction and day labor trades, where daily or weekly payment is quite common and extensive background checks are less practical, given the constant workforce flux. Air and international travel likewise tends to be concentrated in more elite (or at least middle class) groups. Thus, if don’t smoke or drink, many African-Americans and other minorities may have no need for photo identification in their daily lives. Religious and social minorities such as Amish people or survivalists who separate themselves from society in many ways or have religious proscriptions against being photographed would also fall under this rubric.

Much of what was said above is also true of the elderly (particularly the elderly and poor), although sometimes for different reasons. Elderly people often have poor eyesight, reflexes, or motor coordination and are thus unable to drive, even if they did when younger. They don’t work for pay, and any bank accounts they have are likely to have existed for quite some time. The same physical limitations, as well as limited income, make them less likely to travel. And on the whole, they are less likely to drink or smoke, both because of the limits their age places on them and because smokers and drinkers are more likely to have already passed away by this stage of their life. Even if they have previously had valid identification, there may be little incentive to go to the effort of renewing it.

None of this might be a problem if it was sufficiently simple to acquire the necessary identification. However, I’ve already mentioned the fairly obvious mobility problems of the elderly. In the same way, not only are many licensing offices somewhat distant from city centers and difficult to access using public transportation (likely because of the cost of physical space) but many urban minority citizens work multiple physically demanding jobs and have little time or energy for any extra exertion. Given how many registered voters (most of whom presumably also have photo ID) fail to turn out in elections as it is, this extra effort seems rather unlikely for many whom we should be encouraging to participate in the process of government. Rural elderly face similar issues, except there is a near-complete lack of public transportation for many, and the nearly licensing center may be hours away.

And that introduces the important final question of this whole discussion: what are the goals we seek? If the goal is to micromanage the process to ensure no one who is not fully certified slips through the cracks at any costs, voter identification laws may still make sense, as long as we are willing to admit that they disproportionately affect historically and contemporaneously disadvantaged groups. If instead, we wish to be the United States of America with the big tent which welcomes those who are willing to work hard and want to participate in making this society a one nation strong through its many peoples and perspectives, preventing a few people from trying to work the system (at a substantial risk to themselves and with little individual likelihood of influencing even one decision through that particular vote) by disenfranchising a small but meaningful minority of those who have served in our wars, built our homes, and made many of the things we take for granted, all while trying to survive at a handicap, in that case I see no moral or practical ground for voter identification.

Whew.

Now for the promised (if brief) excursus on faith. If you are not a person of faith, you could stop reading here. You may find, however, that the discussion below is not that different from your own understanding of the calling of humans or citizens in general.

There are at least two major reasons this discussion matter for people of faith. First:  people of faith who benefit from the extraordinary foresight codified first amendment to the U.S. Constitution have a duty to use their freedom of speech and faith to contribute to other important conversations, including regarding government and voting. From a Christian perspective, this is a vocation, or calling, that I believe is universal to those who receive the benefit of democracy, and the Bible is unequivocal on the obligation to serve particularly the most disadvantaged members of society.

Second: churches and non-Christian congregations or groups face continually face decisions that look much like this one. Every decision to limit or control “belonging” or participating as a full member in a congregation entails a trade-off. If only certified members of a single branch of a single family of a worldwide historical faith are allowed to share in communion, for example, that decision sends a clear message to outsiders: you can join us, but only if you agree to look and act like us. Regardless of theology or conviction, the costs of attending a membership class regularly as a working single parent or a disabled elderly person may outweigh the perceived benefits of communion, and in the process we have set our own boundaries in the place of God’s. The church, as it has learned in recent decades of decline, is not immune to social dynamics, nor should it try to recuse itself of involvement in a nation or world.

If you hadn’t already gathered, I oppose voter identification laws as unjust, impractical, and above all, immoral. I understand their appeal, and I do not belittle those who believe they are wise, but I hope that if you’ve read this far, you at least understand somewhat better the systemic issues in play here.

Peace.

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