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Susan B. Anthony: What Would She Say?

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"How can the 'consent of the governed' be given if the right to vote be denied?" asked Susan B. Anthony, whose birthday we celebrate today. Yet, years after her hard-won gains for women's voting rights, there are a plethora of efforts now underway across the country to make voting harder by restricting the ease of casting a ballot. These efforts would undermine the "consent of the governed" just as surely as if the franchise were openly confined to white male property owners, as it was in the beginning of our republic.

In 2008, voter turnout rose by five million, primarily among Hispanic, African-American and young voters, according to the US Census. It is hard to imagine that such progress can be maintained if the so-called "reforms" popular with some are enacted. More than 11 percent of Americans of voting age, and a higher proportion of African American, low-income and older citizens lack a current and valid government-issued photo ID. While the current legislative activity may be intended to shrink the participation of groups assumed to be more left than right, women will be disproportionately affected, particularly by voter identification proposals that have increasingly gained traction.

Why? Because the requirement that every voter display a valid, current, government-issued photo ID imposes a particular burden on women. When certain legislators talk about such an ID, they generally mean a driver's license or its substitute, and 70 percent of all Americans without a license are women. Those women are most likely old, poor, urban, rural, members of a minority group or some combination thereof. They face significant barriers to acquiring a photo ID because doing so means producing other documents that may be very difficult or impossible to obtain.

For example, each state has different rules and fees for issuing a certified copy of a birth certificate. The first thing most states want is a photo ID. In the alternative, they will accept other documentation, the nature of which varies by state. In some states older birth records are maintained by counties or towns. Those women most likely to need documents verifying their existence are also more likely to be ill-equipped to navigate the bureaucracy or pay the required fees.

Such fees, in my opinion, amount to a poll tax, a practice abolished by the 24th amendment for federal elections, and by the Supreme Court in Harper v. Virginia, which banned the poll tax for all elections. The state fees in question are solely the discretion of state legislatures and governors and nothing says they can't or won't go up. What most certainly will go up is the cost to the states of administering a photo ID requirement.

All of this activity to restrict voting in the name of preventing fraud is completely unnecessary and really quite pernicious. Evidence of voter fraud is minimal and evidence of fraud based on misidentification is nearly nonexistent. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested by a US deputy marshal for openly voting in the 1872 presidential election. She voted in the wake of the ratification of the 14th amendment, which granted citizenship rights to all with no mention of gender, ignoring the 15th amendment, which granted the franchise to men only. She was convicted, though she refused to pay the fine and the government was too cowed to collect it. Fast forward a hundred forty years later and one can only imagine what Susan B. Anthony and her followers would say now. Shame on all of us if we let the clocks be turned back.