Monday, June 18, 2012

Voter ID or Voter Suppression?

The dust is settled, the instant analyses have faded, and it’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff of Wisconsin’s recall election. This is important not just for the state. We do, after all, have a presidential election this November.

The chaff? It is all Barrett’s fault because his message was muddled. The Democratic Party sold out the grass roots. Obama sold out Barrett. And so on.

The wheat? First, that money is corrupting our politics. Second, that voter ID laws and other forms of voter suppression are inherently undemocratic — and are being used to ensure Republican power not only on a state level, but also to elect a Republican president.

(Yes, there clearly are other complicated questions. For instance, what is the appropriate relationship between grass roots organizing and electoral politics? How best to counter three decades of an unrelenting conservative message that government is evil, public sector workers are greedy, and the social safety net props up the undeserving? Answers to such multi-faceted questions require extended essays, not blog posts.)

Regarding money, there has been significant post-recall discussion over Citizens United and what the Wisconsin recall may portend for November’s vote. But there has been less discussion about Voter ID laws and attempts to suppress the vote in communities that tend to vote Democratic.

Here in Wisconsin, race somehow became a non-issue in analyses of the Walker/Barrett results.

Following the June 5 vote, the Milwaukee local media sliced the results any number of ways — union versus non-union households, conservatives versus liberals versus independents, male versus female, rural versus urban.

But it was New York Times blog that pointed out the clearest divide, one based on race. Only 5 percent of Blacks voted for Walker, while Barrett garnered 94 percent of the Black vote. Whites were more evenly split: 57 percent for Walker, 43 percent for Barrett.

Ever since the end of slavery, voting requirements have been tied up with issues of race. The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1870, prevented any state from denying the right to vote to any male citizen on account of his race. African Americans became either the majority or a significant percentage of the population in former Confederate states. Overnight, southern politics were transformed.

But it wasn’t long before Blacks and poor whites were disenfranchised, whether through poll taxes, literacy or residency requirements or changes in registration. It wasn’t an accident that one of the most contentious struggles of the civil rights movement involved the right to vote — with the 1965 Voting Rights Act a seminal accomplishment.

Federal law has helped prevent wholesale backsliding into voter suppression, especially in southern states. But voter suppression is still alive and well – and in 2011 took on new life. Following the Republican upsurge during the 2010 elections, states across the country passed laws that restricted the right to vote, with the impact falling disproportionately on people of color, poor people and the elderly. Many of the bills were inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which develops templates for conservative legislation.

“The Advancement Project, an advocacy group of civil rights lawyers, correctly describes the push as ‘the largest legislative effort to scale back voting rights in a century,’” the New York Times noted in an editorial.

In Wisconsin, Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature passed Act 23, which instituted a number of changes. The most controversial required a voter to present an acceptable photo ID, such as a state-issued ID or a driver’s license.
The laws are allegedly a response to voter fraud, which allegedly leads to a lack of popular confidence in our elections.

But the laws are a solution in search of a problem. Outright voter fraud is extremely rare. Most irregularities stem from felons unknowingly voting, from mis-steps by election officials, or from record-keeping errors. Wisconsin’s voter ID law addresses none of these concerns.

What’s more, the most lasting assault on public confidence in our elections is a result not of voter fraud, but a hurried decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that granted George W. Bush the Florida election by some 500 votes and thus the U.S. presidency as a result of our winner-take-all system of electoral votes.

A study by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice predicts that the changes in voting requirements in 14 states in 2011 will affect five million voters and could swing the upcoming presidential election. “The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 185 electoral votes in 2012 — more than two thirds of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency,” the center notes.

Last March, after lawsuits were filed against Wisconsin’s voter ID law, Gov. Scott Walker cavalierly dismissed the importance of protecting the right to vote. “There are many pressing issues facing our state; rehashing and litigating voter ID at the taxpayers' expense isn't one of them,” Walker argued in a March 7 opinion in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Judge David Flanagan of Dane County Circuit Court begged to differ. In his March 6 opinion granting a temporary injunction against the law’s ID requirements, he noted that the right to vote “is a fundamental, defining element of our society.” He went on to note that Wisconsin’s 2011 voter ID law “is the single most restrictive voter eligibility law in the United States.”

Judge Flanagan also referred to uncontested affidavits that “offer a picture of carousel visits to government offices, delay, dysfunctional computer systems, misinformation and significant investment of time to avoid being turned away at the ballot box.” A trial occurred in April and briefs are now being submitted. It is unclear whether a final decision will be issued before the November elections. Additional lawsuits are proceeding through both state and federal court.

For many people, especially white middle class people with cars, it can be hard to imagine how a voter ID law might suppress the right to vote. But almost a quarter of people aged 65 and older do not have a Wisconsin’s driver’s license or identification card. The same is true for 55 percent of all African American men and almost half of African American women. The percentages are significantly higher for African American men and women aged 18-24. Poor people are also less likely to have a photo ID.

Forty uncontested affidavits were filed in one of the lawsuits against Wisconsin’s voter ID law. The affidavit from Juanita Guardiola shows the Catch-22 nature of the law.

Last fall, Guardiola and her son Mauricio went to the DMV offices to get photo IDs. Guardiola was told she had to pay $28 for her ID, which irked her, but it was Mauricio who received the royal run-around.

Mauricio had a birth certificate, a school ID, a laminated social security card, and a letter to the home address from his physician. All seemed in order. But the clerk said that in order to get a photo ID, Mauricio had to produce a non-laminated social security card.

The next day, it was off to social security administration office, where they were given a printout confirming Mauricio’s social security number. Then it was back to the DMV office. The clerk, however, refused the social security printout and required an original card.

So it was back to the social security office, requesting a new card for Mauricio. But, as the affidavit states, “The clerks informed us that we could not receive a new social security card without producing first a photo ID from the state of Wisconsin.”

Photo caption/credit: The photo is from a series of U.S. postage stamps commemorating the Civil Rights Movement. This particular stamp pays homage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and is based on a photograph by Bruce Davidson, “Youths on the Selma March,” (1965).
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

1 comment:

  1. The DMV no longer needs your actual SS card.
    All you need is the number. In bureaucracy, you can run into ill informed clerks. I'd suggest that Mauricio go back.