Aaron Regunberg: Voter ID Leads to Voter Disenfranchisement

Friday, April 27, 2012


On Tuesday I voted in the Presidential Primary. But thanks to Rhode Island’s new voter ID legislation, which requires all voters to show one of a prescribed list of identification cards in order to cast a vote, I easily might not have had this opportunity to exercise one of my fundamental rights as an American.

When I arrived at my polling place, I was asked to show my ID. Curious about how this new process would play out, I asked, “What if I didn’t have an ID?” The poll worker smiled and said, “Well, there’s lots of different IDs you could use.” I pressed, “But what if I didn’t have any of them—if I didn’t have an ID at all?” One of the nearby poll workers joked, “Then you’d be arrested.” I laughed, but after a moment asked again. There was a pause, and then the poll worker responded, “Well, then you couldn’t vote.”

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Of course, I had done my research. I knew that this year, as a phasing-in measure, folks without IDs would still be allowed to fill in a provisional ballot. And, anyways, I had just been doing an experiment; fortunately for me, I actually had an ID with me and was able to show it and cast my vote. By luck of the draw, I happen to be in a privileged enough position that this legislation doesn’t really affect me. I’m privileged to have known where to look up the new voting requirements. I’m privileged to have continuous access to the internet, so I could easily find out what exactly I’d need to bring to the polling place in order to vote. I’m privileged to already have an ID, as well as a stable home address to list on it. And if I didn’t have an ID, I’m privileged enough to have the resources to get one without too much difficulty.

These are all privileges that many middle-class folks in my position think of as universally shared. But there are lots of people in our state who aren’t in the privileged situation I have the luck of being in, and given the conversation I had when I voted Tuesday, it seems hard to deny that someone a little less informed than me—but with just as much of a right to vote—could easily have walked out of that polling place disenfranchised. It wouldn’t have been the fault of any individual poll worker or ID-less citizen. Rather, they blame lies on this undemocratic law itself.

The evidence is clear that voter ID laws like these have a disproportionate chance of disenfranchising African Americans, Latinos, seniors, and citizens who are low income or homeless. For example, when the Justice Department investigated Texas’ new voter ID law, it found that a Latino registered voter is at least 46.5 percent, and potentially up to 120.0 percent, more likely than a non-Latino registered voter to lack required forms of identification. Obviously those numbers apply to the Texas population, but it seems fair to assume that similar disproportionately exists in Rhode Island. And that’s not even getting into the populations that have an even more difficult time acquiring an ID, such as the homeless or the very elderly.

After Tuesday’s primary, there were lots of glowing reports of how the new voter ID system went off without any hitches. But only 3 percent of Rhode Island’s registered voters went to the polls Tuesday, and those who did were the most die-hard voters in the state—precisely the folks who are least likely to be affected by this legislation. In an election with greater turnout, the chances of voter disenfranchisement are exponentially higher. And the craziest part is, no advocates of this law anywhere in the country have produced credible evidence that the type of voter fraud prevented by voter ID even exists in any marginally appreciable way.

To paraphrase a recent quote from 60 Minutes’ Andrew Cohen, you can be stupid and vote in America. You can be drunk and vote in America. You can be mentally insane and vote in America. You can vote in America for Snooki, or, like tens of millions of Americans, you can choose to not vote at all. But if you cannot afford the time and money it takes to get a driver’s license or another form of required ID, you’re out of luck. We’re talking about a real affront to our democratic values here, and all I can do is hope that—like previous forms of voter disenfranchisement that have existed in our country—we will someday overcome this too.


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