April 23, 2012

Why do I need I.D. to get I.D.?

Since the 2008 historic election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, there have been an increasing number of states which have begun to implement new voter ID laws – laws requiring people to present photo identification when voting in an election.  This seems to be a no brainer to some, and a controversial, voter suppression, reversion back to Jim Crow laws to others.

Here in Pennsylvania the campaign season arrives tomorrow (http://tinyurl.com/d2tzhya).  On television and in print media, there has hardly been any coverage of this election cycle.  If there has been any coverage about the upcoming election, it has focused on the new voter ID law passed by Governor Corbett just six weeks ago which requires voters in the state to present identification when casting a ballot.  Overall there are approximately 34 states which have begun to push these measures through their respective state legislatures.  My biggest question, concern is not whether or not this potential law is a new form of voter suppression, but rather a more philosophical question; why in the 21st Century are there people in this country who do not have identification in the first place?

I am keenly aware of the historical significance of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which eliminated such punitive and racists measures like poll taxes and other means which denied citizens  - namely Black Americans, their right to vote.  I am also quite aware of the history of one of the groups promoting voter ID laws throughout the states, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and their intention to gain Republican votes simply through the elimination of Democratic ones.  They believe; “Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”  I am also aware of the legitimate arguments made by progressives and Democrats who argue that there is an unintended cost to voting, that by having to purchase an identification card (or update an old card) one can conclude that if one has to pay for identification, they are basically paying to vote.

My problem with my fellow progressives and Democrats is this; why wouldn’t we want the most fool proof way of having our votes count?  Through presenting legitimate identification (which can range from state issued IDs to other types of photo identification), there can no longer be the “excuse” that a person’s absentee ballot should not count, that our names do not match (because of misspelling or other “mistakes”) and thus we need a provisional ballot, or any other structural limitations to our being able to express our freedom to vote.

What is also problematic is the lengthy list of places often frequented where one does need identification; to cash a check (either at a bank or a check cashing store, to open a utility account (electric, gas, cell phone…), to travel (not just through the air, but also via train or bus), to enter 21 and over establishments, to receive discounts based on age (whether student rates or senior citizens fares), to rent an apartment or other housing, and finally to receive a voter ID card itself.  These are just but a few examples where people need to present identification. 

I understand my position goes against what many in the progressive community believe.  I respectfully disagree.  While there have been very few, if any, examples of voter fraud based on identification in the past few years, as we hope to grow voting to include perhaps online voting, same day registration and the like, it seems to me that the easier it is to identify who is casting a ballot, the easier it will be to make sure that that vote counts.

Finally, with such laws already on the books such as the “Motor Voter Bill” and in some states, same day registration, we should be in the business of making it easier to increase the voter rolls rather than reduce that number.  As it stands, outside of the historic 2008 election, voting in the 2010 Congressional races, 2011 municipal elections and the current primary season has been dismal without these voter ID laws in place.  In two examples, Chicago and Philadelphia, the election turnout in the past two elections has been well below 40 percent.
It is unclear whether or not these new voter ID laws will increase voter populations or as some believe, suppress voter turnout even further.  What is encouraging is that groups like the NAACP and the ACLU, while fighting the Constitutionality of the law, are also fighting in the streets, educating the voting population on what they need to be able to go to the polls in cities such as Philadelphia, not just during primary season, but in November for the general election.  Hopefully, this civic education will benefit the electorate as opposed to what ALEC intends which is to sway the election in their favor.  

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