Voter Suppression: A Reality Check

I’m not a policy wonk. I’m more likely to fit the description of a ‘hack’. A hack, in this vernacular, is someone who specializes in electoral politics. I’m not a career hack by any means; I’m just a volunteer. Rather than get riled up about any particular ‘issue’ I strive to help people win elections so they can govern and create good policy. Perhaps the only ‘issue’ I can get riled up about in any sustained fashion is voting.

Needless to say I’ve been reading about the national trend toward voter suppression with growing concern. Clearly I don’t want to see this happen anywhere. I believe making voting as easy as possible is the way to go. I’m very fortunate to live in a State where that is the case. Voting by mail is as close to ideal a way to vote as any I can imagine. It’s cheaper, safer and easier than poll voting.

Right now my biggest concern regarding voter suppression isn’t that it’s happening in places like South Carolina, or how it is being reported (or not reported) in the Main Stream Media. What is bothering me is how it is being reported in the blogosphere and non-traditional media. So far the way this topic is being handled amounts to a disproportionate amount of hand-wringing and, sorry to say, hyperbole. Nothing highlights this reaction more than losing sight of the difference between proposing a law and passing a law. Yes American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) provided ready-made laws to be introduced into the State Legislature in 38 states. I get that. Yes, and in some states those laws will pass in some form or another. I get that, too. We have ample evidence of what happens when a law gets introduced in one House in a Legislature and how difficult it is to be signed into law. Under Speaker Boehner, the Republicans have ‘introduced’ hundreds of Bills in the past 300 days. Only three major Bills have been enacted into Law during that time: The Continuing Resolution, Raising the Debt Ceiling and the America Invents Act (patent reform).

Introducing a law and getting it enacted into Law as written are two very different things. Also, not all voter ID laws are created equal. Some require voter ID be shown, but allow for the voter to vote a provisional ballot in the absence of ID (FL), or sign a sworn affidavit in the presence of election officials if no ID is produced (AL). Spend some time studying the nifty interactive MAP at the National Conference of State Legislatures site and learn for yourself that these laws aren’t as draconian as some in the media suggest. Plus even though many Bills were submitted, very few actually passed. Some have been held over to 2012, but in Montana the Bill that was passed was vetoed. Even West Virginia couldn’t get a Voter ID law on the books. It’s ugly out there, I’m not denying it, but I’m also seeing that in some ways this fight is as much about what constitutes an ID as it is about making it harder to vote. I agree that in many areas this is flat out racism at its core and we definitely need the help of the Department of Justice to mitigate some of the effects of these laws as enacted. The two most obvious examples of this are in Texas and South Carolina. In both cases, the laws have come under the purview of the DOJ for reasons better documented elsewhere.

My concern isn’t about that it is happening or why, but what do we as regular people do about it? Registering voters has gotten and will continue to get more difficult between now and October 2012. Well, it’s not so much registering voters, but registering voters who can actually vote, and who will vote Democratic. In addition to registering voters, we will need to learn how to ‘rehabilitate’ people who are already registered to vote so they can comply with these new laws.

What I realize is that I take my State ID for granted; I really do. I’ve had and maintained one for nearly forty years. I have struggled with the concept of going through life without an ID and then I read this eye-opening article about the problems of people in South Carolina who never had a birth certificate. I have never lived in the South, so I am more inclined to view this problem from a technical standpoint even as I empathize with the shame heaped upon the African Americans who must endure this process to protect their right to vote. Still, it’s dangerous to focus only on the injustice at the risk of losing sight of potential solutions.

I want to concentrate on developing a new outlook on Voter ID laws that doesn’t require a sense of outrage at social injustice to muster people to action. One of the things I love about and learned from OFA is how to disengage raw emotion about an issue to solve a problem. What I’m seeing currently is that people seem to still be caught up in the raw emotion created by the belief that requiring photo ID to vote is voter suppression. But is it? Let’s look at Michigan with its 16 Electoral votes that went for Obama in 2008. The law as it currently stands:

Each voter must show a photo ID or sign an affidavit attesting that he or she is not in possession of photo identification. Forms of ID accepted: Michigan driver's license or a Michigan personal identification card. A voter who does not possess either of the above may show any of the following, as long as they are current:
  • Driver's license or personal identification card issued by another state
  • Federal or state government-issued photo ID
  • U.S.passport
  • Military ID with photo
  • Student ID with photo -- from a high school or accredited institution of higher education
  • Tribal ID with photo
Remedy: An individual who does not possess, or did not bring to the polls, photo ID, may sign an affidavit and vote a regular ballot.

See how this law has been mitigated to give the voter a way to vote without an ID? This is not oppressive, nor can it be characterized as suppression.

Next check out Kansas, which is considered to have, a *strict* Voter ID law:

Each person desiring to vote shall provide a valid form of identification. The following are exempted from the ID requirement:
Persons with a permanent physical disability that makes it impossible for them to travel to obtain voting identification and who have permanent advance voting status
Members of the merchant marine and uniformed service members who are on active duty and absent from the county on election day, as well as their spouses and dependents
Any voter whose religious beliefs prohibit photographic identification

The following forms of identification are valid if they contain the name and photograph of the voter and have not expired. Expired documents are valid if the bearer is aged 65 or older.
  • Driver's license issued byKansasor another state
  • State identification card
  • Government-issued concealed carry handgun or weapon license
  • U.S.passport
  • Employee badge or identification document issued by a government office or agency
  • Military ID
  • Student ID issued by an accredited postsecondary institution inKansas
  • Government-issued public assistance ID card
Remedy: A voter who is unable or refuses to provide current and valid identification may vote a provisional ballot. In order to have his or her ballot counted, the voter must provide a valid form of identification to the county election officer in person or provide a copy by mail or electronic means before the meeting of the county board of canvassers.

I see Government-issued public assistance ID card on that list and think, okay that’s good. I see that people with permanent disabilities are exempted and think, even better. I’ve seen the exemption for people whose religious beliefs forbid having photo ID on more than one State.

Basically, I’m not seeing an all out assault on voting rights here. There are extremes at both ends of the spectrum from no ID requirement at all to truly restrictive and punitive requirements, with a lot of in between, all over the map requirements and flexibility. What appears critical for making it reasonable for the average voter to exercise his or her right to vote is knowledge. All of us knowing the laws of each of our States backwards and forwards matters. A lot.

We cannot afford to allow panic or overreaction to influence our response to these changes. Panic paralyzes us and makes us unable to formulate and execute reasonable plans for assisting voters to comply with the laws. If we make this about the Republican’s efforts to keep people from voting, then we lose. If we make it about helping voters fulfill the requirements for identification, then we win.

Okay, so what about South Carolina? Here’s an interesting article addressing the South Carolina Voter Registration ID with photo:
  • If you want to vote in one of the upcoming elections and the Justice Department approves the law before then, you will need a state-issued photo ID.
  • You can vote absentee, which will not require a photo ID.
  • If you can't get an ID, you can cast a provisional ballot and swear you had substantial difficulties in getting the necessary documents or ID.
  • If you don't plan to vote before the end of the year, you can just wait until a voter registration card with your photo is available.
"The whole birth certificate issue will become a moot point once the photo voter registration system is in place," Whitmire said.

Yet another law being mitigated to make it more reasonable to accommodate the special needs of voters who have problems obtaining photo ID. I don’t want to minimize the problems these new laws will cause for people who don’t already have an acceptable form of photo ID. What I do believe is that once people surmount these challenges, they will be in a position to keep voting as before.

These laws will continue to be passed and when they fail, proponents will take it to the voters (no irony there) as is planned in Minnesota. One of the keys to helping us stay rational in all this will be learning the laws in the States where Obama won in 2008. Some of the States with Electoral importance have yet to codify their Voter ID laws. I take heart in that the laws that have been passed have been watered down, and I no longer feel helpless about this process. It’s only voter suppression if we allow it to be.

It comes down to this: Education, Education, Education. Frankly that’s what it was in 2008, too. Because the Obama campaign had a laser focus on voter registration, it brought huge numbers of new people into the voting universe who were not there before. Even people who were already registered to vote required a great deal of education, especially in the caucus states. People who had never caucused before, myself included, swelled the ranks in support of candidate Obama. It will be much harder this time; there is no way around that. This challenge is doable. We can win this. Voter registration is the key. As long as we stay focused on helping people comply with the voting laws of the State where they live and wish to vote, and don’t allow the hand-wringers to paralyze us with their angst about ‘voter suppression’, we will prevail. Of this I am completely confident.

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