Earlier this week my son and I headed to the Minnesota State Capitol. The House was starting what would be a 9-hour debate about whether the Minnesota Constitution should be amended to require voters show photo ID at the polls.
“Why are we here?” he asks.
The proponents of the amendment to amend Minnesota’s constitution to require photo ID at the polls want us to believe this is no big deal. Everyone has an ID and uses it all the time. And after all we need to ensure the integrity of our election system, don’t we?
But what they don’t say is that the recent spate of voter ID initiatives sweeping the country was not born out of some newly-emerging threat to election integrity. Elections – particularly those in Minnesota – have exceptionally high rates of integrity and minuscule, verging on non-existent, rates of voter impersonation or fraud. When pressed by opponents to produce an example of voter impersonation in Minnesota, Minnesota Majority, the 501(c)(4) behind this initiative, finally dug up one instance of a woman who mailed in an absentee ballot for her daughter who was away at college and whose daughter went and voted on campus. That’s a case of a mom and her teenager not coordinating, not a threat to election integrity.
Supporters of voter ID laws also leave out a critical distinction between situations where photo identification use is routine and voting. I have no constitutional right to drive, to bank, to buy things with my credit card, or to fly on an airplane. If I don’t want an photo ID, I may forfeit these privileges.
I have a constitutional right to vote.
But “election integrity” isn’t really behind the voter ID initiatives. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, the recent wave of voter ID laws threaten to disenfranchise 5 million eligible voters. It’s important that we understand exactly who is among those likely to be disenfranchised. According to the Minnesota League of Women Voters, those least likely to have a government-issued photo ID include:
- 18 percent of elderly citizens do not have a government-issued photo ID.
- 15 percent of voters earning less than $35,000 a year do not have a photo ID.
- 18 percent of citizens aged 18-24 do not have a government-issued ID with their current address and name.
- 10 percent of voters with disabilities do not have a photo ID.
- 25 percent of African-American citizens of voting age do not have a current, government-issued ID.
Wait a minute. One in four African-American adults do not have a government-issued ID.
Voter ID laws are the latest in a long line of voter suppression efforts that seek to disenfranchise African-Americans in particular and the poor in general. We all remember the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, right? That’s the one that guaranteed that the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied based on color. Nearly a century after its passage Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act. In the intervening 95 years, African-Americans faced obstacles to exercising their constitutional right as U.S. citizens to vote: poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic restrictions. And now, voter ID laws.
I could have said a lot of things to my son. But as we milled around outside the House chamber reading the plaques on the statues, the answer was pretty clear. The statues which ring the the second floor of the rotunda all depict leaders of Minnesota’s military units who fought in the Civil War and we talked about Minnesota’s role in helping end slavery in the U.S.
So I answer: “We’re here because some people don’t want everyone to be able to vote. That’s wrong, and we need to stop it.”