How I explained Minnesota’s Voter ID law to my 7-year-old

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.”

Immigration Detention: American “Hospitality”

In a statement released February 28, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), responded to the late 2011 release by Immigration and Customs Enforcement of its revised Performance-Based National Detention Standards, calling the manual “a hospitality guideline for illegal immigrants.”

Smith, who chairs the House Immigration Subcommittee, promised to hold oversight hearings on the standards at the end of March.

A recent report submitted by The Advocates for Human Rights to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants describes the human rights violations that pervade the United States’ immigration detention system, including lack of access to necessary medical care and sexual abuse of detainees.

Underlying these human rights violations is a fundamental lack of accountability in the sprawling ICE detention system, which is made up of hundreds of state prisons, local jails, private prisons, and ICE-operated detention centers around the country.

As Greg Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says in The Hill’s blog, “immigration detention is no hospitality suite.”

ICE’s new detention standards do little to enhance U.S. accountability for the human rights of the hundreds of thousands of people detained by ICE and nothing to address the conditions of the many more people detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. I’m looking forward to that promised oversight hearing on the ICE detention standards. Perhaps Chairman Smith will address how a system virtually devoid of due process, which denies access to any process to challenge the vast majority of custody decisions, holds people without criminal charge or sentence for indefinite periods of time – often until the person gives up any challenge to the removal from the United States, and which falls outside even the minimal protections promised by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, upholds American values.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people

My boss would say “that’s outrageous.” I almost drove off the road.

Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me! was on the radio. Celebrity guest Seth MacFarlane was playing the Not My Job segment.

Host Peter Sagal asks the question: “Pasadena, like many cities in southern California, maintains a special jail for wealthier inmates who can pay to serve their time. And when the pay to stay jail was opened in the 90s, it needed an advertising campaign. What was the slogan picked at that time to sell that jail? Was it A, quote, bad things happen to good people? B: you got caught, now get comfortable? Or C: here, we call it doing easy time?”

That’s right, folks. Apparently good people don’t actually commit crimes. Bad things just happen to them.

That ad campaign says a lot about how we view the more than 2.3 million people in the United States who are living behind bars. It also helps explain why we seem content to cede, at no small cost to taxpayers, the task of incarceration to private prison corporations.

Mass incarceration has become a defining feature of the United States. Just check out this nifty ACLU infographic illustrating how between 1970 and 2005 the US population has grown by just 40% , while the US prison population has grown by a whopping 700%. Among those imprisoned are nearly 400,000 people held every year awaiting deportation in a web of more than 300 jails and prisons around the country who provide contract bed space to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Last year NPR reporter Laura Sullivan broke a story that drew the connection between private prison lobbyists and the drafter of the notorious Arizona immigration law, SB 1070 . A new report by PICO National Network and Public Campaign takes an even closer look at the relationship between America’s highly profitable private prison industry and the policies that have accounted for exploding prison populations, even in the face of historically low levels of violent crime.  According to the report, the total prison population has increased by 209%. The number of people incarcerated in private prisons has skyrocketed by 1664%. Private prison lobbyists had a hand in drafting everything from three-strikes-and-you’re-out to mandatory minimum sentences and “truth in sentencing” laws, all of which have blown prison populations through the roof.

I just returned from a convening of the US Human Rights Fund in Philadelphia, where Kim McGill of South Central LA’s Youth Justice Coalition told us that while 1 in 100 kids in her neighborhood will graduate from college, nearly all of them will have some encounter with the juvenile justice system. Hard to believe there are so many bad kids out there.