Understanding The Racism Behind America's Voter ID Laws
The phrase “all men were created equal” is one of the most fallacy-ridden quotes in American history. It would’ve been more accurate to say that all white men were created equal. As for women? They don’t count. Black people? They were being kidnapped, brought to America, and treated more as property than as people. That was 1776. Now, in 2016, there is a new phrase that’s come under fire: Every vote counts. As nice as it would be to believe that after decades of fighting for equal voting rights for women and minorities, every voter had equal access to the ballot box—that’s simply not the case. Fresh off the insanely close Democratic primary in Iowa that came down to a 0.3% difference, a new study has been released that proves the voting system is more rigged than the slot machines in Las Vegas. How did this happen? It starts with one big string of voter ID laws that have been passing through state legislatures since 2008.
Why Would You Restrict a Right?
The push to enact strict Voter ID laws is a reaction to the very misplaced fear of voter fraud—but we’ll get to that in a bit. Let’s go back to when Barack Obama raced toward the White House eight years ago. During his unprecedented surge in support, he wound up amassing a significant amount of support among first-time voters. Of the 29 states that record party affiliation, Obama won over 70% of the votes from first-time voters in 2008. It was this surge of support for the Democratic party that inspired a push by GOP lawmakers across the nation to concoct a scheme that has has made it incredibly difficult for many Americans to cast their vote on election day. Methods of repression range from state-to state, but all laws have a common thread—they were passed by GOP-dominated legislatures. In Florida, you can be fined $1000 and face felony prosecution for not submitting voter registration forms within 48 hours of having them filled out. In Ohio, the usual method of allowing voters to cast their ballots early was scaled back by nearly a full month. Oh yeah, and sorry to the felons out there who wanted to feel like citizens. In a number of states, prisoners have had their voting rights stripped away.
While these methods are awful, the absolute worst case of repression comes from having to prove your own citizenship. This may sound like an easy fix but the stipulation has effectively kept voters out of ballot boxes for years because of what states consider to be viable IDs. In Texas, a concealed-weapon permit is an acceptable ID, but a student ID isn’t, and in Wisconsin, student IDs have to provide their current address, birth date, signature, and two-year expiration date—a stipulation that no college or university in that state met. As if that wasn’t bad enough, South Carolina tried to require residents with no ID to pay for a passport or birth certificate, which is pretty fucking expensive. Luckily that particular law is in the midst of a years-long court battle. With all of these hoops to jump through just to decide who you want to lead the country, it’s important to remember that all of these laws were put in place to prevent voter fraud. Now, fraud at the ballot boxes is a serious issue in many countries like Guinea and Egypt. It’s not an issue in the United States of America. Out of one billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014, there were only 31 instances of voter fraud. That’s less than the number of contestants in the semi-finals of American Idol.
Who Does It Target?
With all of these restrictions in place, a trend of discrimination has emerged that overwhelmingly targets anyone who isn’t a white Republican. The team of political scientists who released the study analyzed voter turnout data (so we don’t have to) and came to the conclusion that our voting system is pretty much fucked. After looking at who showed up to vote in states with and without voter ID restrictions, they realized that the laws were harming communities of color across party lines. This study is groundbreaking because, for the first time, they looked at data for states after they implemented their voter ID laws, which conclusively showed “substantial drops in turnout for minorities.” How big of a drop? For Latinos in the general election, the participation gap from whites doubled from 5.3 points in states without strict photo ID laws, to 11.9 in states with strict photo ID laws. For black voters in the primaries, the laws caused the gap with white voters to almost double to 8.5 points. That adds up to a huge turnout advantage for Republicans in voter ID states because, as we’ve all learned, white people tend to flock to the GOP.
That leaves one central argument for pro-voter ID supporters: most people have IDs and, therefore, these laws really shouldn’t be a big deal. That’s a nice sentiment, but estimates show the percentage of registered voters without a valid photo ID range from one to 11 percent. That one percent could be the difference between winning and losing a state. Again, let’s not forget that Iowa was won by a 0.3% margin. No matter how big of a percentage, the fact is that people who can’t afford to get an ID, but are registered to vote, are not being given access to that right—and that’s wrong.
What Does It Mean?
As we’ve seen from endless debates and in poll after poll, this election is incredibly important. The Democratic and Republican race to the nomination is bringing out huge numbers of voters, many of whom are voting for the first time. It’s essential that every vote is counted and measured equally because of one ridiculously simple reason: as Americans, we have the right to vote for a democratically-elected leader of our country. Rigging the system through convoluted laws is unlawful, ugly, and completely destroys the democratic process.
Stay tuned to Milk for more election news.
Original imagery via Kathryn Chadason. Additional images via William Thomas Cain and Mike Belleme.