Thursday, 16 August 2012

One car, one vote

The US presidential campaign switched into high gear this week with Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as a running mate. But with a raft of voter ID laws now going into effect in crucial swing states across the country, it’s looking increasingly likely that the result in November could be shaped more by who is allowed to vote than by who is on the ticket. Thanks to these new laws, if an American doesn’t drive, he or she may not get to vote.

Until 2003, no state in America required voters to show a photo ID in order to vote. For Europeans this may seem strange, since showing your national ID is often a requirement here for things as simple as using a solarium. But English-speaking countries tend to not have national IDs. For some reason I’ve never understood, there’s just some deep-rooted Anglo-Saxon distrust of them.

In the United States, this leaves drivers licenses as the only government-issued photo identification most people have. Because such a large proportion of adult Americans (85%) have a drivers license, this has more or less worked out. Many people obtain a drivers license even if they do not routinely drive, in order to have a photo ID.

But that leaves 10% of eligible American voters who do not have a drivers license or any other form of photo ID, according to NYU's Brennen Center for Social Justice. This group is overwhelmingly made up of African-Americans, Hispanics and college students. And these three groups are statistically the most likely to vote Democratic.

Voter suppression

The fact that before 2003 no state required photo ID in order to vote is an indirect legacy of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory practices that amounted to voter suppression. The legislation was largely aimed at Jim Crow-era laws in Southern states that imposed a poll tax or literacy requirements in order to vote. The literacy tests in particular had been designed by Southern states to keep African Americans from voting.

After 1965 states generally interpreted the spirit of the law to mean they should make voting as easy as possible for people. So people could prove their identity at a polling station with a utility bill, bank statement or paycheck that shows their current address. This is similar to requirements in other English-speaking countries that don’t issue national IDs, such as the UK and Australia.

This was largely the status quo until the Tea Party-fuelled Republican landslide victory of 2010, which put the majority of state governments in GOP control.

The idea of voter fraud has long been a conspiracy theory within conservative circles, despite the fact that no evidence of widespread voter fraud in America has ever been found. Starting in 2003 a few states including Arizona and Indiana became the first states to enact laws requiring photo ID.

But it wasn’t until the election of Barack Obama in 2008 that the idea of ‘rampant voter fraud’ gained a real foothold in Republican circles. Helped by widespread coverage of the supposed problem by Fox News, the more conspiracy-oriented in conservative America became convinced that Obama had been elected through voter fraud. And when Republicans took over state legislatures across the country in 2010, they quickly got to work passing voter ID laws to correct the supposed problem.

2010 and 2011 saw an explosion in voter ID legislation. More specifically, it saw an explosion of such legislation in swing states – the states where neither Democrats or Republicans have a firm electoral advantage.

In 2011, Wisconsin Republican governor Scott Walker and Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich enacted voter ID laws, with the Republican legislators rushing them through for approval so they could be ready for the 2012 presidential election.

They were followed by South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley, though the South Carolina law was shot down by the US justice department for being discriminatory. The justice department has the right to review any voting legislation passed by Southern states under the Voting Rights Act, but it can only do this with Southern states (because they were the ones targeted by the 1965 act). The Republican governor of Pennsylvania, another crucial swing state, has also just passed a photo ID requirement.

Though Republican lawmakers have insisted that the legislation is necessary to prevent the supposedly rampant level of fraud, they have been unable to provide any evidence that such fraud is actually happening. But they have had some accidental moments of candor where they stated what is most likely the real reason for the laws. In June Pennsylvania's Speaker of the House who pushed through the photo ID law, Republican Mike Turzai, stated that Pennsylvania's recent voter identification law would "allow Governor Romney to win Pennsylvania.”

The ID divide

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that people who do not drive are more likely to be poor. And people who are poor are more likely to be minorities. And minorities are more likely to vote for Democrats. Therefor, keeping those vehicle-less people away from the polls is to the Republicans’ advantage. This isn’t an idol hypothesis, it’s a documented result. A 2007 study prepared for the Election Assistance Commission found that in states that had tightened ID requirements, African Americans were 5.7% less likely to vote than in states where they were asked to only state their name. Latinos were 10 percent less likely to vote under similar circumstances, while the combined rate of people of all races was 2.7% less likely.

But Republicans have the American people on their side on this issue. A 2011 Rasmussen poll found that 75% of likely voters “believe voters should be required to show photo identification, such as a driver’s license, before being allowed to vote.” Even 52% of Democrats said they supported voter ID laws.

The widespread report is likely due to the fact that, on its surface, it seems logical that someone should have to prove their identity when they vote. But what the poll respondents are likely not considering is that, because the US government does not issue any photo ID card to all its citizens for free, these laws are effectively requiring a drivers license. People without a license can go to the DMV and get a non-driving permit, but this costs money and most people will not know to do this, particularly as these laws are put into practice for the first time this year.

If Republicans are so concerned about the voter fraud issue, perhaps the solution is that the US should start issuing European-style national IDs. That way they can require IDs without disenfranchising anyone. Of course good luck ever seeing that. Although 75% of Americans may think a photo ID should be required in order to vote, separate polling has shown that only 20% of Americans would support being required to obtain a national ID.

Given that these voter ID laws are clearly not really about voter fraud at all, I doubt they would be being pursued with quite the same relish by these Republican legislators if every American was issued a photo ID.

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