So what’s the big deal with making people flash a photo ID at a poll before they vote? You have to have a photo ID to buy beer; why shouldn’t you be required to have one to vote? And how dare you call it a racist Jim Crow law! Since I know I have readers who have thoughts like these in their heads when they hear the criticisms of the voting law NC governor Pat McCrory signed yesterday and because I love you and want to have a more productive conversation with you than just flaming and shaming, I thought I would try to calmly go through the problematic portions of the law and explain why I and other people see them as problematic.
The first thing that needs to be said historically about Jim Crow voting laws is that they have never been (to my knowledge) explicitly racist. Even at the height of segregation, no law ever said that black people could not vote for being black. Jim Crow has always been about finding “justifiable” means (albeit fantastically ludicrous and farcical ones) of rigging the voting pool to the advantage of the party in power. In the segregated south, these means included poll taxes (since it costs money to count votes) and civics and literacy tests (since a democracy requires educated citizens). These laws were then enforced selectively so that poor whites did not get tripped up by them.
In our present sociopolitical environment, it is no longer possible to systematically disenfranchise an entire race at the level that could be accomplished in the Old South. But what the new voting laws can accomplish is to suppress enough of a percentage of voters to tip the balance in a close election. If I were a high school debate team coach and I wanted to give my students an incredible challenge, it would be to argue that the new NC voting laws are anything other than a meticulously calculated means to make the electoral math as advantageous to NC Republicans as possible. If I were a national Republican strategist, I would have been on the phone with the NC state legislators begging them not to make all Republicans look like opportunistic cheaters who can’t win otherwise. Ultimately, the outcome of all this will be largely up to the decent conservatives with integrity in the Republican Party (who I’m willing to believe may be the silent, uneasy majority that hasn’t yet mustered the courage to tell the wing-nuts to sit down and shut up). If you are among those who believe that conservative ideas can actually win on their own merits, then it is critically important for both your own goals and your allegiance to the truth which is above all our goals to stand up for electoral justice before the blowback from all of these desperate measures causes the permanent demise of the Republican Party in this country, which is increasingly looking like the trajectory this thing is going to take.
So here are the problems with the new law as I see them.
1) Photo ID’s
Believe it or not, not everyone has or needs a driver’s license. In the middle class world of most people who have the time and technology to read my blog, it’s unimaginable that anyone would lack a photo ID. That’s why I think this conversation is exasperating for middle class conservatives, especially when the R word comes into it. It seems like a no-brainer that the way to ensure people are who they say they are is to require a government-issued photo ID.
But many poor people don’t have photo ID’s, particularly elderly poor people who don’t drive. And if you don’t have a birth certificate or social security card because you never got them when you were born on a country farm in the thirties or you lost them because your home life hasn’t been very stable, then you can’t just go to the DMV and get a photo ID on the testimony of seven ladies from your church that you really are Mabel Evans even if you also have bills with your mailing address written out to Mabel Evans. If you were born in NC, the law is supposed to make it easier for folks to get a new birth certificate although such a thing would still be very daunting to a poor elderly person. But if you were born in a different state and you don’t have your birth certificate, then you’re in real trouble. Worse, what if you don’t even know which county you were born in?
Again, a problem completely off the radar screen of socially stable middle class people like me.
The ICE is not going to come to your house and deport you if you don’t have a birth certificate as long as you don’t look Latino or have a Spanish accent. If you live in the hood without a car, particularly if you’re a shut-in who only gets out on rare occasions, your life is not going to be on hold without a valid drivers license like it would be for any of us middle class people who misplace a driver’s license and go to the DMV that day to replace it because we could not imagine going anywhere without it.
If you don’t have the paperwork to get a photo ID and you’re an elderly poor person without transportation and physical mobility issues, the navigation of government bureaucracies required for you to get legit is going to be insurmountable for you without a lot of time-costly help from a volunteer voting rights organization. It’s a very different level of effort for a volunteer to come to your house the day of an election and drive you to the poll and push your wheelchair while you carry a utility bill with your name and address on it to show to the poll worker. So while technically speaking, a photo ID law does not explicitly target black people, it creates a hardship for elderly poor people without transportation which disproportionately impacts black people according to the demographics of NC.
So what about the problem of voter fraud this supposedly addresses? Think about the logistics involved here. The poll workers have a list of registered voters from your precinct that they’re checking off. To accomplish voter fraud as an individual voter, I would have to go up to the same table of poll workers multiple times giving them different names and documents, presuming that they wouldn’t recognize my face and gambling that I wouldn’t say the name of somebody who had already been checked off. I just don’t think the payoff is worth the risk for the individual voter which is why the actual cases of voter fraud that occur on the basis of individuals presenting false identities are very rare.
If you’re going to attempt voter fraud, the place to do it is by hacking the voting machines so that a large mass of votes could be switched over. That’s how the Mugabes of the Global South do it; it’s way more efficient to accomplish fraud through the counting system than through individual voters. To be fair, I was happy to see the new law require voting machines to spit out a written record for every vote cast (assuming this happens in real time). Really, that’s the way to address any legitimate concerns about voter fraud as opposed to using “voter fraud” as the pretext for creating extra hoops for poor elderly people to jump through so you can gain a better electoral margin.
2) Stopping the college kids and other young voters from voting
There are multiple measures in the new law that target college-aged voters. One is the refusal to accept college ID’s or out of state drivers licenses from college kids as their means of identification. This means that out of state college kids have to change their permanent residency to NC in order to vote here, which impacts their ability to stay on their parents’ auto and health insurance. When you’re a college kid, stopping at a table on the way to class to register to vote and then stopping at an on-campus polling site is a very different level of effort than navigating the intricacies of absentee balloting. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to participate in the political process where you’re living even if your permanent home is elsewhere? Why would anyone who actually believes in democracy and wants not to further alienate an already completely cynical generation try to keep kids from voting in their local elections?
One of the most blatantly mean-spirited provisions of the law is what it does to the families of in-state students who register to vote where they go to college instead of jumping through the hoops for an absentee ballot or driving three hours back to their homes for Election Day. If you change your voter registration address, your family loses the right to claim you as a dependent on their tax returns. So it is literally a poll tax! For a family under a tight budget, this means choosing between voting or sorely-needed cash.
Another aspect of the law that seeks to suppress young voters is to eliminate a program called Citizens Awareness Month by which high schools educated their students about voting and registered them en masse to vote en masse before their 18th birthday so that they wouldn’t be on their own navigating that hoop once they graduated. Again this is the kind of thing which tried to level the playing field for young voters who don’t have parents that are paperwork gurus like mine were. I don’t remember exactly but I’m sure that if my mom didn’t actually fill out my voter paperwork for me when I was an ADD trainwreck at age 18, she at least reminded me about it until I did it. Kids that don’t grow up with my privilege don’t have that kind of reinforcement.
3) Early voting and poll accessibility
For people with white-collar salaried jobs, leaving work in the middle of the day to vote is no big deal. People who have to clock in and clock out at work have to budget their workday errands much more stringently if they’re even able to arrange their schedules to do them during the day at all. If you add into the mix the lack of a car, then the challenge of errands that are not within walking distance becomes even greater.
For a blue-collar worker without a car who’s at the mercy of an irregularly running bus system, same day voter registration means only one day of lost wages instead of two. The more early voting options you have, the more likely you can find a time to vote when you’re off work. Additionally if you work in a different part of town then where you live, being able to take a lunch break and file a provisional ballot out of precinct (which will later be checked out with your precinct) makes a huge difference.
Well the new law is a huge kick in the stomach to blue collar workers, because it cuts a week of early voting, same day registration, and out of precinct provisional voting. All of these things except for the elimination of early voting can be rationalized superficially as “voter fraud prevention,” but there’s no evidence that the provisions that were already in place were not adequately addressing the possibility of fraud. Neither same-day registered or out-of-precinct votes were getting thrown in the box with all the other ballots until after they went through an extra validation process that there’s no reason to doubt the effectiveness of.
4) Vigilante poll challengers
The scariest part of the new law to me is the provision that allows for anyone in the county to challenge the legitimacy of another voter in that county as opposed to limiting it to the same precinct as in the past. This means that a volunteer group could sit down with the publicly available voter registration rolls and submit challenges against every opposing party’s voter, gambling that they could snag hundreds or thousands of votes that way on technicalities. Vote challengers may become as important to future political campaigns as attack ads and robocalls.
Poor and younger people who rent apartments move around a lot more and tend to vote more Democratic than established middle-aged, middle class homeowners. If you change apartments and your driver’s license has your old address, it’s not a problem if you get pulled over, but it is a problem if someone throws up a “voter fraud” dragnet to go fishing for invalidating technicalities among a blanket group of apartment dwelling voters. Do you get fined for ludicrous challenges per invalid voter challenge filed since it costs poll workers time to investigate? I imagine not! How would it be possible to differentiate bad-faith challenges from good-faith ones? Think about an analogous issue in which the super PAC’s actually claim with a straight face that their attack ads are not at all about tearing down an opposing candidate but just supporting an issue they’re passionate about.
Would there be any incentive not to file challenges against every registered Democrat in your county hoping to catch a few who moved apartments and didn’t immediately report to the DMV? This last piece is where the new law will accomplish exactly what it is purportedly designed to prevent. When the law is designed to create opportunities to subvert the choice of voters who have moved from one apartment to another or have some other technical glitch with their electoral registration, then the law itself is voter fraud.
When politicians openly embrace an approach of cheating to win, it means one or more of two things: they either don’t really believe their ideas are beneficial enough to society to win peoples’ hearts in the public forum or they believe that the majority of people are too stupid to know what’s best for their society. Either of these attitudes are antithetical to democracy and exude precisely the same spirit about human community that motivated the Jim Crow laws of a different era.