Over the past few years, many states have attempted to implement restrictive photo identification laws. The debate surrounding this legislation is now familiar -- those supporting such laws state that a government-issued photo ID is needed to board a plane, rent a movie, or purchase cold medicine. Opponents point out that none of those activities are fundamental rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, and that certain groups -- the poor, minorities, the elderly, the disabled -- are far less likely to have the required types of ID.
It is easy to block out both sides of the argument, attributing it to the noise of partisan political bickering, especially if you are part of the fortunate 89% of the country that does have a valid driver's license.
Even though little in the photo ID debate has changed since the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding Indiana's photo ID law in Crawford v. Marion County, what has changed recently is that photo ID proposals are now just one of the many election law "reforms" specifically designed to keep voters away from the polls.
During recent legislative sessions all over the country, lawmakers have proposed, and often passed, regressive voting laws -- largely along partisan lines. A frequent argument advanced for photo ID is that it protects the election process, which is ironic because there is no evidence of voters impersonating other voters. Instead, these new laws actually harm the election process because they have the potential to make voting less convenient for everyone. Undoubtedly, these laws have a disproportionate impact on traditionally underrepresented groups including minorities, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, young people, women, and low-wage workers. The unequal treatment encouraged by these new regressive laws has drawn comparisons to the notorious segregation-era Jim Crow laws.
The Miami-Herald and the New York Times made references to these regressive laws being "a modern whiff of Jim Crow." Recently, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz came under fire for such a comparison and later told Politico:
Jim Crow was the wrong analogy to use. But I don't regret calling attention to the efforts in a number of states with Republican dominated legislatures, including Florida, to restrict access to the ballot box for all kinds of voters, but particularly young voters, African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
Wasserman Schultz was correct in her retraction statement on two very important levels. First, Jim Crow is the wrong analogy because Jim Crow laws were inspired by hatred and racial bigotry. A better analogy would be to partisan legislators attempting to stack the deck. The recent wave of regressive voting laws is inspired by political gamesmanship and desire to change the rules of the game for electoral advantage.
Second, just because these regressive laws are not inspired by racial hatred does not mean they are acceptable. It does not mean that people should look the other way as legislators change voting laws to limit access to the polls for groups believed to favor one party over another. Attention needs to be called to what has been happening around the country.
Photo ID laws have passed in Wisconsin, Texas, Tennessee, Kansas and South Carolina. Florida made it more difficult for a citizen to change his or her voting address, shortened the state's early voting period, and essentially shut down third party voter registration efforts. The North Carolina House voted to shorten the time for early voting, which Wisconsin also shortened in their new law. The Maine legislature just repealed the state's Election Day Registration law which has been on the books since 1973. The Ohio legislature is considering proposals that would create several obstacles for voters, dramatically shortening popular early voting periods and making the provisional ballot use and vote rejection much more likely. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is considering a photo ID requirement. The New Hampshire legislature considered a bill designed to keep students from voting. This is far from an exhaustive list, which makes the situation even more shocking for voters around our country.
The amount of legislation proposed just this year aimed at making it harder for people to vote is staggering. To let partisan gamesmanship undo hard-won suffrage rights would be a tragedy. Limiting an individual's access to exercise his or her fundamental right to vote under the guise of voter integrity is fundamentally wrong.
The success of our democracy is dependent on citizen participation. When laws are passed that create barriers to participation, it offends our most basic principles. The right to vote in America is being eroded and the time to pay attention is now.