Pennsylvania Voter ID Law an Affront to Civil Rights

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It is a fundamental tenet of democracy that the government is stronger and its power more justified when more citizens are enfranchised. America has progressively relaxed restrictions on the right to vote — be they based on property ownership, gender or race — and has thus created fairer and freer elections. For the most part this movement has been unidirectional; rarely have voting rights been rolled back once granted. For the most part, we now agree that all non-felon adults should have the right to vote. Of course, the key here is ‘for the most part.’

Voting rights are apparently up for argument again, threatened this time by the thinly-veiled Voter ID law here in Pennsylvania, as well as others across the country. Just as Jim Crow laws kept African Americans from the polls through literacy tests and poll taxes, Voter ID laws aim to keep the urban working poor (read: the Democratic base) from voting.

Is there an epidemic of in-person voter fraud that we’ve all somehow been missing? No. Is there any reason to believe that elections will be fairer with ID laws? No. This isn’t a solution to any existing problem. Moreover, if there were a problem, in what universe would requiring voters to present ID before all voters even have ID be a good idea?

If we accept that all citizens have the right to vote, then that right cannot be infringed upon. More than that, the government has an obligation to protect our fundamental rights. Now, I understand that the right to vote is not explicitly enshrined in the constitution, but if that is the argument then we’ve lost sight of democracy. In a true democracy, the government should not be making voting a rigorous process; it should be uncomplicated and open to all who are eligible.

Let’s say that, despite the lack of any evidence showing that in-person election fraud has any real effect on our elections, states decide to seriously address individual voter fraud. These Voter ID laws are not the right way to do even that. The first step in requiring ID to vote should be requiring everyone to have a standard ID in the first place. If ID is going to be required to exercise a basic civil right, then why not just have a National ID? Issue it to everyone freely, without them having to go through the hassle of getting ID currently, which for many involves lengthy journeys to other parts of the state (though IDs themselves are free, many counties do not have a DMV or another government office able to issue IDs, requiring those who live in such counties to travel to the nearest issuer, trips which can be costly for the poor). I’m going to make a guess, though: the people pushing for Voter ID laws would be the same ones who would fight against a National ID. When they’re pushing Voter ID, it’s for fraud prevention and security, but if someone proposed a National ID, that will suddenly be government overreach and the beginnings of oppression. I’m not saying that I am in support of a National ID, but then again I don’t think anyone should need ID to exercise a fundamental right of citizenship.

I’m not saying that there are no problems when it comes to the fairness of our elections, it’s just that state governments seem to be going about the issue entirely wrong. We should tackle the problem at the institutional level, where there may be real, rather than imagined, problems. Tougher standards on drawing district lines, real non-partisan election commissions. Instead of, as in Ohio, letting the Attorney General break ties for the bi-partisan county electoral committees, why not force those by-partisan committees to reach a decision together? Or better yet, why not extend section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to all states, requiring them to get federal approval for their voting laws? No more gerrymandering in Texas, no more reduced voting hours in predominantly black counties in Ohio. Elections are a national issue, so let’s not let the local governments in a dozen counties decide the election. This should be an issue at the highest level, in the public eye. The threat to our elections doesn’t come from individuals, it comes from state governments themselves.

Are conservatives willing to push for compulsory identification enough to require a standard National ID that could be used to prevent fraud? No. Are they ready to move beyond partisanship in the way that elections are organized so as to reduce institutional fraud? No. (I’m not in any way saying that liberals are without flaw, but look at who’s pushing for the Voter ID laws and working to reduce the ability of large segments of the population to vote.) Unless politicians are willing to take the issues seriously, Voter ID laws are a joke.

In Pennsylvania, it is estimated that nine percent of voters lack acceptable ID to vote. The vast majority of these voters live in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and are non-white. It doesn’t take an expert in electoral math to figure out who they’re going to vote for. Voter ID laws are discriminatory, as those without ID are largely poor and may not be able to afford the time necessary to obtain state ID. Apparently unconvinced that they can win voters over on the issues, the Pennsylvania Republican Party is turning to voter suppression in the hopes of victory. For all of our sakes, I hope they don’t succeed.

How can the Republican Party be at once the party of limited government and individualism and the party of “Show me your papers?” This isn’t about reducing fraud, and it certainly isn’t about individual rights; this is about winning an election. I don’t believe there was ever a time where our elections were perfect and open and free, but I cannot think of another time that there has been such an attempt, though veiled with seemingly-good intentions, to suppress the votes of a specific group. Well, not since 1965.

Let’s have elections and let them be fair and free of fraud, but let’s not lie about how we achieve that. Let’s combat fraud, real fraud and not scapegoat a non-issue. Let’s be honest and fair, let elections represent all Americans, not just most. Let’s not go back to Jim Crow.

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