Are Voter ID Laws a Form of Racism?

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

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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.

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.

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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