By MARTIN FROST
Voter suppression in the minority community has always been high on the Republican agenda. It’s done in the name of protecting the sanctity of the ballot. It’s really about keeping black, Hispanic and elderly voters away from the polls.
The Republicans are back at it again, and Democrats had better pay attention or they could lose elections on this basis alone.
Republicans got a big boost recently when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law requiring state- or federal-government-issued photo identification (such as a state driver’s license or a passport) for voting. Under the Indiana law, the document must be in the exact name that appears on the registration rolls and must have an expiration date that has not yet passed.
The fight now shifts to the states. The Supreme Court has opened the door to voter ID laws, but since each state determines its own rules for conducting elections, the rules could well vary from state to state, and fights in state legislatures on this subject will be epic. Civil rights groups will correctly view this as the single-greatest threat to the right to vote since the passage of the Voting Rights Act 43 years ago.
Seven states have variations of this type of law on the books, and it is possible that other states could pass similar laws in time to affect the 2008 elections. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature passed a new voter ID bill, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. It is also possible that partisan Republican election administrators in some other states may attempt to use the Supreme Court decision to unilaterally impose a photo ID requirement, even if there is no law in their state authorizing one.
Missouri considered amending its constitution in time to affect this year’s election. A proposal moving through the GOP-controlled Legislature earlier in May would have required proof of citizenship (a birth certificate, naturalization papers or a passport) in order to register to vote. That’s even tougher than producing a government-issued photo ID at the time you vote. However, the legislature adjourned without acting. Other states may consider comparable proposals in the future.
It is estimated that at least 20 million people in the United States do not have a driver’s license. The vast majority of those potential voters are minorities or the elderly — groups who normally vote Democratic. If someone does not have a driver’s license, it is also unlikely that he or she will have a passport. An extreme example of this problem was seen during Indiana’s May 6 primary, when a group of elderly nuns was turned away because they didn’t have driver’s licenses.
Proponents of such laws argue that states can provide an option for voters to obtain free state identification cards which would permit them to vote. The problem with this is that in order to obtain a state ID card, voters would need original copies of their birth certificates. Piece of cake? Not exactly. It can take weeks to obtain a new birth certificate, and it can be expensive.
I recently needed an original copy of my birth certificate. Since I was born in Glendale, Calif., I had to write to Los Angeles County to get the document. It took several phone calls to determine the procedure to apply for a new birth certificate and then a month to actually receive the document.
Other people may face discrimination under voter ID laws, even if they have driver’s licenses. A recently married woman may not have obtained a driver’s license in her new name, and if she has done so, she may not have changed her name on the voter registration rolls. Additionally, Hispanic names on registration rolls may differ from Hispanic names on official documents because the family name often is placed in the middle rather than at the end, as it would be on registration rolls.
Requiring proof of citizenship in order to register to vote is likewise flawed. As discussed above, it is often time-consuming and expensive to obtain an original birth certificate. Some rural counties may not even have good birth records, particularly for elderly African-Americans from the South. It should be enough that voters are subject to prosecution if they falsely swear that they are citizens in order to register.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed poll taxes and literacy tests as ruses meant to prevent minorities from registering and voting. Let’s hope states will resist the temptation to bring them back in another form, even if it is approved by a Republican-dominated Supreme Court.
Martin Frost, a Democrat, represented the Dallas-Fort Worth area from 1979 to 2005. He rose to caucus chairman and head of the DCCC. He is now an attorney with Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus PC in Washington and serves as president of America Votes, a grass-roots voter mobilization and education effort.