Thursday, August 9, 2012

Can I See Your ID? How Voter ID Laws Are Undermining Our Democracy

This week marks the forty-seventh anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The VRA was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson to ensure that states did not discriminate against certain classes of voters that had traditionally been disfranchised. The VRA came into effect in the midst of the civil rights struggle in the United States. Southern states systematically enacted laws that circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment and disfranchised African Americans. Following the passage of the VRA, southern states brought a number of lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Act. In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court conclusively stated:

"Congress had found that case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat wide-spread and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinate amount of time and energy required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered in these lawsuits. After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims."
South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 327-28 (1966).

On its 47th anniversary, the Voting Rights Act is more relevant than ever. Voter ID bills, bills that would require voters to present a valid, government issued ID, are popping up across the country. Today, only three states -- Wyoming, Oregon and Vermont -- who do not already have voter ID laws on their books did not consider such legislation this year. During the past year, seven states enacted voter ID laws, six states passed voter ID legislation in one chamber, five states had voter ID legislation vetoed and, in one state, voter ID legislation is currently pending. States that have voter ID laws are often unclear on what types of ID can be used. Some say it must be a valid, government issued ID. Others, allow valid student IDs. However, in Pennsylvania in particular there was confusion over what constituted a valid student ID. Pennsylvania required an expiration date on the student IDs in order to consider them valid but, most Pennsylvania schools do not include an expiration date on their IDs.

This is a problem because voter ID laws disproportionately affect low-income, minority, elderly, disabled and young voters. There are approximately 21 million Americans who do not have a government issued photo ID. It is estimated that voter ID laws will disfranchise as many as 5 million voters nationwide in the upcoming election cycle. See our infographic on the facts about voter suppression.

Even more worrisome is the fact that voter ID laws are alleged to correct a problem that is virtually non-existent, voter fraud. In Wyoming there have only been two cases of attempted voter fraud in the past sixteen years, and both culprits were apprehended and tried. The Department of Justice conducted a nationwide study and discovered that between 2002 and 2007, out of 300 million votes cast, there were only eighty-six cases of voter fraud.

Under the guise of protecting the integrity of elections, voter ID laws effectively push people out of the electorate. The consequence of these laws is that they erect barriers to the ballot box that disfranchise many low-income, minority, elderly, disabled and young voters who do not possess the type of identification required. Voting is an integral part of our democratic system; the more people who vote the more accurately the results represent the will of the people. Preventing any portion of the population from voting is an abuse of the democratic process.

On the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it is important to ensure that we continue to move forward and not regress to similar tactics used to keep many African Americans from the polls. Voting is the most basic right we share as Americans, and in order for this to be a true democracy, every eligible American must be able to vote.

Julianne Gern
ACLU of Wyoming Legal Extern