The right of each citizen to vote is the basis of democracy. It is the foundational right by which all others are ultimately preserved. As such, it must be accorded the highest priority; all other concerns must be secondary. This includes attempts to “increase voter confidence” and other claims in favor of recent voter ID laws.
Our federal and state governments have a sordid history of abusing this right of the citizens. During the years of slavery, free blacks were often denied the right to vote despite being qualified in other ways. After slavery all manner of other limitations were invented to deny African American their right to vote, despite the clear language of the 15th Amendment. The same month that the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote, W.E.B. Du Bois included this item in an essay condemning the nation’s mistreatment of its black citizens:
It disfranchises its own citizens.
Disfranchisement is the deliberate theft and robbery of the only protection of poor against rich and black against white. The land that disfranchises its citizens and calls itself a democracy lies and knows it lies.
Ninety-five years later, we are rolling back the progress of the Civil Rights movement and (despite the clear intent of the 24th Amendment) establishing new systems which impose additional burdens (including financial costs) on U.S. citizens who desire to exercise this most basic right. As though that were not troubling enough, the laws have a disparate impact on non-whites, reflecting the racist aims of previous voting restrictions.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee accounted for a reduced voter turnout in those states of 1.9 and 2.2 percent respectively. That’s more than 122,000 voters prevented from voting. A federal district court in Wisconsin found that 300,000 registered voters lacked a photo ID (see p. 22 of Judge Posner’s dissent on denial of en banc hearing). Texas’ voter ID law may prevent more than 600,000 voters from casting their ballots (see page 6 of Justice Ginsburg’s brilliant and scathing dissent). A friend shared recently that this law may keep her from voting only because she realized too late that her driver’s license expired. Given the figures above, she may be joining millions of U.S. citizens denied their basic right to vote.
Supporters of the laws suggest they are necessary in order to prevent fraud. They claim (often erroneously) that the need for photo identification is so ubiquitous as to constitute a negligible burden for voting. Even if that were the case, concern over a few instances of voter impersonation fraud does not justify even small additional burdens. A citizen who purposefully chose to forgo a photo ID, including all the inconveniences that may occasion in daily life, should still be entitled to exercise their right to vote, the basis of self-government.
For those who continue to worry about preserving the “integrity of the voting system,” there is a simple solution. Pass a voter ID law that shows as much concern for those potentially disenfranchised as for those who may vote fraudulently. After all, the prevention of a legitimate vote has the same potential to change the outcome of an election as a vote cast fraudulently. But the harm in the former is greater because the means of prevention robs citizens of their rights. The only constitutionally acceptable voter ID law should be one in which the government (rather than the citizen) bears responsibility for ensuring that all eligible voters have the appropriate ID. Yes, that will involve a significant financial cost. But that cost is minor compared to the threat of removing such a basic right of citizenship and foundation of democratic government.
The nation that disfranchises its citizens and calls itself a democracy lies and knows it lies, even when it lies in the name of protecting democracy.