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Are Voter ID Laws a Form of Racism?

A former Republican tells it like it is: voter ID laws unfairly burden minorities.

| Mon Oct. 15, 2012 2:41 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Democrats are frustrated: Why can't Republican voters see that Republicans pass voter ID laws to suppress voting, not fraud?

Democrats know who tends to lack ID. They know that the threat of in-person voter fraud is wildly exaggerated. Besides, Republican officials could hardly have been clearer about the real purpose behind these laws and courts keep striking them down as unconstitutional. Still, Republican support remains sky high, with only one third of Republicans recognizing that they are primarily intended to boost the GOP's prospects.

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How can Republican voters go on believing that the latest wave of voter ID laws is about fraud and that it's the opposition to the laws that's being partisan?

To help frustrated non-Republicans, I offer up my own experience as a case study. I was a Republican for most of my life, and during those years I had no doubt that such laws were indeed truly about fraud. Please join me on a tour of my old outlook on voter ID laws and what caused it to change.

Fraud on the Brain

I grew up in a wealthy Republican suburb of Chicago, where we worried about election fraud all the time. Showing our IDs at the polls seemed like a minor act of political rebellion against the legendary Democratic political machine that ran the city and county. "Vote early and often!" was the catchphrase we used for how that machine worked. Those were its instructions to its minions, we semi-jokingly believed, and it called up an image of mass in-person voter fraud.

We hated the "Democrat" machine, seeing it as inherently corrupt, and its power, we had no doubt, derived from fraud. When it wasn't bribing voters or destroying ballots, it was manipulating election laws—creating, for instance, a signature-collecting requirement so onerous that only a massive organization like itself could easily gather enough John Hancocks to put its candidates on the ballot.

Republicans with long memories still wonder if Richard Nixon lost Illinois—and the 1960 election—thanks to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's ability to make dead Republicans vote for John F. Kennedy. For us, any new report of voter fraud, wrapped in rumor and historical memory, just hammered home what we already knew: it was rampant in our county thanks to the machine.

And it wasn't just Chicago. We assumed that all cities were run by similarly corrupt Democratic organizations. As for stories of rural corruption and vote tampering? You can guess which party we blamed. Corruption, election fraud, and Democrats: they went hand-in-hand-in-hand.

Sure, we were aware of the occasional accusation of corruption against one or another Republican official. Normally, we assumed that such accusations were politically motivated. If they turned out to be true, then you were obviously talking about a "bad apple."

I must admit that I did occasionally wonder whether there were any Republican machines out there, and the more I heard about the dominating one in neighboring DuPage County, the less I wanted to know. (Ditto Florida in 2000.) Still, I knew—I knew—that the Dems would use any crooked tool in the box to steal elections. Therefore America needed cleaner elections, and cleaner elections meant voter ID laws.

Doesn't Everyone Have an ID?

Every once in a while I'd hear the complaint—usually from a Democrat—that such laws were "racist." Racist? How could they be when they were so commonsensical? The complainers, I figured, were talking nonsense, just another instance of the tiresome PC brigade slapping the race card on the table for partisan advantage. If only they would scrap their tedious, tendentious identity and victim politics and come join the rest of us in the business of America.

All this held until one night in 2006. At the time, my roommate worked at a local bank branch, and that evening when we got into a conversation, he mentioned to me that the bank required two forms of identification to open an account. Of course, who wouldn't? But then he told me this crazy thing: customers would show up with only one ID or none at all—and it wasn't like they had left them at home.

"Really?" I said, blown away by the thought of it.

"Yeah, really."

And here was the kicker: every single one of them was black and poor. As I've written elsewhere, this was one of the moments that opened my eyes to a broader reality which, in the end, caused me to quit the Republican Party.

I had no idea. I had naturally assumed—to the extent that I even gave it a thought—that every adult had to have at least one ID. Like most everyone in my world, I've had two or three at any given time since the day I turned 16 and begged my parents to take me to the DMV.

Until then, I couldn't imagine how voter ID laws might be about anything but fraud. That no longer held up for the simple reason that, in the minds of Republican operators and voters alike, there is a pretty simple equation: Black + Poor = Democrat. And if that was the case, and the poor and black were more likely to lack IDs, then how could those laws not be aimed at them?

Whenever I tell people this story, most Republicans and some Democrats are shocked. Like me, they had no idea that there are significant numbers of adults out there who don't have IDs.

Of course, had I bothered to look, the information about this was hiding in plain sight. According to the respected Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 7% of the general voting public doesn't have an adequate photo ID, but those figures rise precipitously when you hit certain groups: 15% of voting age citizens making less than $35,000 a year, 18% of Americans over 65, and a full quarter of African Americans.

A recent study by other researchers focusing on the swing-state of Pennsylvania found that one in seven voters there lack an ID—one in three in Philadelphia—with minorities far more likely than whites to fall into this category. In fact, every study around notes this disparate demographic trend, even the low-number outlier study preferred by Hans van Spakovsky, the conservative Heritage Foundation's voter "integrity" activist: its authors still found that "registered voters without photo IDs tended to be female, African-American, and Democrat."

The "R" Bomb

The more I thought about it, the more I understood why Democrats claim that these laws are racist. By definition, a law that intentionally imposes more burdens on minorities than on whites is racist, even if that imposition is indirect. Seeing these laws as distant relatives of literacy tests and poll taxes no longer seemed so outrageous to me.

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