Disenfranchisement for Dummies

Illustration courtesy of harpersweekly.com.

As I fill out my Absentee Ballot for Illinois, I’m asked about an amendment to the state Constitution which would “prohibit any law that disproportionately affects the rights of eligible Illinois citizens to register to vote or cast a ballot based on the voter’s race, color, ethnicity, status as a member of a language minority, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or income.” That seems to make sense – everyone deserves the right to vote. Apparently, however, some would disagree.

Last June, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1964, more or less nullifying the law without outright overturning it. The specific part of the law that was eliminated was Section 4, which outlined a list of nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) and various other regions which could not make changes to their voting laws without the approval of the Justice Department.

In recent years, several proposed voter ID laws – which required voters to present certain forms of identification at the polls – had been deemed discriminatory by the Justice Department. Less than three hours after the Supreme Court announced its decision, Texas Attorney General (and current gubernatorial candidate) Greg Abbott declared that a voter ID law blocked by the Justice Department in 2012 would “take effect immediately.”

Throughout the South, a host of voter ID laws followed the Court’s decision. Since then, the Texas ID law has been at the center of a legal war waged over the constitutionality and legality of voter ID restrictions.

Since June’s ruling, the law’s legality has been in flux due to a series of court decisions for and against voter IDs. This ambiguity ended on October 18 when the Supreme Court ordered the law be used for the coming elections. The permanent constitutionality of the law will be decided in court over the coming months and years.

The Texas law, like its fellows throughout the country (though mostly in the South) was ostensibly instituted to prevent voter fraud. However, countless studies have shown that voter fraud happens incredibly rarely. When there are fraudulent votes, they tend to be through absentee ballots – which voter ID laws will not affect.

Truly, these laws only serve to disenfranchise minority voters. An April 2013 study by North Carolina’s State Board of Elections found that 33.8 percent of people without appropriate identification were African American, even though African Americans comprise only 22.0 percent of the state’s population.

In addition, 45.9 percent of those without suitable ID were minorities, compared to only 35.6 percent of North Carolina’s population being minorities. Also, almost twice as many women as men didn’t have the correct ID, despite the state’s population being only a little over half female. Results of studies by the American Civil Liberties Union and others corroborate these findings.

The reasons for not owning the identification vary. The cost of obtaining IDs can be prohibitive. As well, redistricting and the location and hours of DMV offices form a significant barrier to those working full time or without access to a car. Differences in name can also impede voters from obtaining the correct forms of identification.

The passage of the voter ID laws is clearly politically motivated. While I’m sure bigotry has an effect on the thoughts of lawmakers, I doubt it totally fuels their decisions. Rather, minorities, women, and students (who are often banned from using their school IDs) tend to overwhelmingly vote Democrat. And it turns out that Republicans – what a surprise! – passed these laws.

I’m trying to find a word to describe how wrong this is, but nothing quite fits. I’m not so naïve as to think that we’re in a post-racial society, but that we’d take a step back to the days when only propertied white men could vote seems like sheer insanity.

Voter ID laws are the direct descendants of literacy tests, which prevented uneducated, illiterate freed slaves from voting. Disenfranchisement is integral to the “colorblind” structure of oppression that our society rebuilds again and again. After slavery came Jim Crow, and after Jim Crow came mass incarceration. In each of these eras, the African American vote was suppressed.

The ballot is the greatest weapon that the minority – and the person in solidarity with the minority – wields. It was through election that the Voting Rights Act was first passed, alongside other hallmarks of liberty and equality, including the Civil Rights Act, the Affordable Care Act and Title IX.

When someone tries to take your right to vote, it isn’t because they are ambitious or confident in their superiority. It is because they are scared of you. And they damn well should be, because you know what’s fair and right. And what they’re doing is neither.

Now we’ve got to fix this. No one should ever be stripped of their right to vote. That should be common sense, but let’s make sure they hear us anyways. You may think I’m overstating the gravity of the situation, but silencing the minority has historically been the first step in an increased wave of violent repression against that minority.

As Lyndon Johnson said when the Voting Rights Act was passed, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” If you have a chance to vote this election and you’ve got a referendum about voter ID laws, don’t doom our democracy.