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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

After I became a Democrat, I tried explaining this to some of the Republicans in my life, but I quickly saw that I had crossed an invisible tripwire. You see, if you ever want to get a Republican to stop listening to you, just say the "R" word: racism. In my Republican days, any time a Democrat started talking about how some Republican policy or act was racist, I rolled my eyes and thought Reagan-esquely, there they go again

We loathed identity politics, which we viewed as invidious—as well as harmful to minorities. And the "race card" was so simplistic, so partisan, so boring. Besides, what about all that reverse discrimination? Now that was racist.

We also hated any accusation that made it sound like we were personally racist. It's a big insult to call someone a racist or a bigot, and we loathed it when Democrats associated the rest of us Republicans with the bigots in the party. At least in my world, we rejected racism, which we defined (in what I now see as a conveniently narrow way) as intentional and mean-spirited acts or attitudes—like the laws passed by segregationist Democrats.

This will undoubtedly amaze non-Republicans, but given all of the above, Republican voters continue to hear the many remarkably blunt statements by those leading the Republican drive to pass voter ID laws not as racist but at the very worst Democratist. That includes comments like that of Pennsylvania House majority leader Mike Turzai who spoke of "voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done." Or state Representative Alan Clemmons, the principal sponsor of South Carolina's voter ID law, who handed out bags of peanuts with this note attached: "Stop Obama's nutty agenda and support voter ID."

Besides, some would point out that these laws also affect other people like the elderly (who often vote Republican) or out-of-state college students (often white)—and the latter would make sense as a target, because in the words of New Hampshire House leader Bill O'Brien, that's the age when you tend to "foolishly... do what kids do": "vote as a liberal." And yes, this might technically violate the general principle that clean elections should include everyone, but partisans won't mind the results.

This makes me wonder how bothered I would have been had I known how committed Republican strategists are to winning elections by shrinking the electorate rather than appealing to more of it. I did certainly harbor a quiet suspicion that, to the extent we were the party of the managerial class, we were inherently fated to be a minority party.

The Safety Valve

Another key reason why Republican voters see no problem with these laws is their big safety valve: if you don't have an ID, well, then, be responsible and go get one!

If, however, Republican voters are generally unaware of the high frequency of minorities, the poor, and the elderly lacking IDs, they are blissfully ignorant of the real costs of getting an ID. Yes, the ID itself is free for the indigent (to comport with the 24th Amendment's ban on poll taxes), but the documents one needs to get a photo ID aren't, and the prices haven't been reduced. Lost your naturalization certificate? That'll be $345. Don't have a birth certificate because you're black and were born in the segregated south? You have to go to court.

Similarly, Republican voters—and perhaps most others—tend not to be aware of how hard it can be to get an ID if you live in a state where DMV offices are far away or where they simply aren't open very often. One can only hope that would-be voters have access to a car or adequate public transportation, and a boss who won't mind if they take several hours off work to go get their ID, particularly if they live in, say, the third of Texas counties that have no ID-issuing offices at all.

I doubt that most Republican voters know that some Republican officials are taking steps to make it even harder to get that ID. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, to take an example, signed a strict voter ID law and then made a move to start closing DMV offices in areas full of Democrats, while increasing office hours in areas full of Republicans—this in a state in which half of blacks and Hispanics are estimated to lack a driver's license and a quarter of its DMV offices are open less than one day per month. (Sauk City's is open a whopping four times a year.) Somehow I doubt that this is primarily about saving money.

What To Do?

One reason why voter ID laws are so politically successful is that they put Democrats in a weak position, forcing them to deny that in-person voter fraud exists or that it's a big deal. Republican voters and media simply won't buy that. It doesn't matter how many times the evidence of the so-called threat has been shown to be trumped up. It's a bad position to be in.

Providing examples of Republicans committing fraud themselves—whether in-person or, as in Massachusetts and Florida, with absentee ballots (a category curiously exempted from several of the Republican-inspired voter ID statutes)—won't provide a wake-up call either. Most Republican voters will shrug it off by saying, essentially, "everybody's doing it."

If we can't talk about race, and Republican voters insist that these laws really are about fraud, then maybe Democrats should consider a different tack and embrace them to the full—so long as they are redesigned to do no harm. IDs would have to be truly free and easy to obtain. The poor should not be charged for the required documentation. More DMVs should be opened, particularly in poor neighborhoods and rural areas, and all DMVs should have evening and weekend hours so that no one has to miss work to get an ID.

To be sure that the laws do no harm, how about mobile DMV units that could go straight to any area where people need IDs? Nursing homes, churches, senior centers, you name it. They could even register people to vote at the same time. Now that would be efficient—and democratic.

No, wait, I've got it: How about a mandatory ID card? Every American would receive a photo ID as soon as he or she turns 18. That's it! A national ID card!

Then voter ID laws would be the perfect thing, because we all want clean elections with high voter turnout, don't we?

Something tells me, though, that Republicans won't go for it.

Jeremiah Goulka writes about American politics and culture, focusing on security, race, and the Republican Party. A TomDispatch regular, his work has been published in the American Prospect, Salon, and elsewhere. He was formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a recovery worker in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and an attorney at the US Department of Justice. He lives in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him through his website To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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