Article by Teia Swan
Photo by Kelley Minars on Flickr.com
The U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to establish federal protections against voter suppression by outlawing mechanisms such as literacy tests and mandating federal oversight on the electoral proceedings in states with tendencies to practice voting discrimination. While the legislation was generally effective in mitigating overtly racist techniques of voter suppression, it also gave birth to a new, less obvious wave of political disenfranchisement.
Nowadays, most electoral policies in the United States that serve to disenfranchise people of colour are presented alongside seemingly rational justifications; felons, for instance, are denied the right to vote on the basis that they have chosen to violate the inherent social contract that guides our society – never mind that many incarcerated people are purely victims of the school-to-prison pipeline, nor that in many states, their disenfranchisement persists beyond their actual incarceration. One of the more nefarious justifications for voter suppression, however, is the one provided for voter identification laws: it can be seen that policymakers and media sources in America routinely push the narrative that democracy is best protected by denying people the right to vote.
Although Voter ID laws are officially intended to ensure election security, they have in actuality ended up disenfranchising citizens living in poverty, many of whom are people of colour. Access to valid forms of identification, for example, is often obstructed by bureaucratic fees and transportation costs. The ACLU reports that for most voters, the costs of obtaining documents and covering transportation can range from $75 to $175, an amount that would not be insubstantial to the 49% of Americans that are living paycheck to paycheck. Recent numbers indicate that such barriers deter many Americans from accessing identification cards: 11% of Americans do not possess any form of official ID. These numbers are even higher among voters of colour. For instance, 20% of Native Americans and 25% of African-Americans of voting age report having no form of government ID.
Furthermore, certain implementations of voter identification laws can be seen to be specifically disadvantageous to disenfranchised groups. In Texas, gun licenses are considered to be acceptable forms of voting ID, while social service cards are not. Similarly, in most states, Native American tribal IDs are not considered to be valid forms of identification, despite often being the primary form of identification for tribal citizens. Moreover, many Native Americans do not even have access to appropriate documentation should they seek to acquire state or federal identification; many people living in tribal populations do not have birth certificates, nor do many rural reservations have street addresses required to prove residency.
Evidently, voter ID laws have the capacity to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of American voters in every election. To make matters worse, such laws aren’t actually necessary. Despite claims from President Trump that millions of non-citizens committed voter impersonation in the 2016 election, a closer look at the numbers reflects that since 2000, there have only been 31 incidents of voter impersonation, out of over a billion cast ballots. Cases of voter fraud are so astonishingly rare that there is no justification for continuing to disenfranchise impoverished and non-white Americans. And, while election security is important, there are less harmful ways to caution against voter impersonation. A recent study indicates that government databases can be used to confirm identity almost perfectly, with only a 1 in 2.7 billion chance of confusing two individuals.
The healthiest democracies are the ones in which citizens can participate freely. This is why it may be time for America to assess the ways in which its legislation may be preventing citizens from exercising their right to vote and change its laws accordingly. Hopefully, this will include abolishing voter ID laws – or, at the very least, expanding the list of acceptable forms of ID to include formats such as tribal identification cards, social service cards, and student IDs.