May 5, 2014

FORKEN | Voter ID Laws Institutionalize Discrimination

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On the same day Donald Sterling was banned for life from the National Basketball Association for expressing vehemently racist views, a more significant civil rights issue progressed. While the banishment of Sterling from the League is undoubtedly a vital and applaudable step in advancing civil rights, the striking down of proposed voter ID laws by a federal judge in Wisconsin will have a more a substantive impact on reducing racial inequality. The law, drafted by the state’s Republican legislators, would have placed a heavier burden on voters, requiring state-approved photo-identification at the polls. Over the past three years, 30 other states have debated proposed voting restriction legislation.

Voter ID laws perpetuate inequality by disproportionately affecting young voters, especially young minority voters, a group that tends to lean Democrat. According to a study co-authored by Cathy J. Cohen of the University of Chicago and Jon C. Rogowski of Washington University in St. Louis, 72.9 percent of black youth ages 18 to 29 were asked to show identification at the polls, compared to 60.8 percent of Latinos and only 50.8 percent of whites. Furthermore, 17.3 percent of black youth claim that the lack of an adequate voter ID kept them from voting; for Latinos and whites, these numbers stand at 8.1 percent and 4.7 percent respectively.

Clearly, the purpose of voter ID laws is to ensure the legitimacy of the democratic process by eliminating any fraudulent votes from being registered. The issue with this solution is that the problem is nonexistent.

According to the federal judge that heard the case in Wisconsin, “The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past.”

The Department of Justice revealed in a 2006 Congressional hearing that between 2002 and 2005, only 40 voters were indicted on voter fraud charges out of 197 million votes for federal candidates. Out of those forty cases, only 26 resulted in a conviction or a guilty plea, resulting in a .00000013 percent voter fraud rate during that time period.

Disenfranchising minority voters — in order to combat a negligible voter fraud rate — isn’t only terrible policy, it’s a façade that threatens the fundamental basis of democracy by limiting participation on the basis of race and class. This isn’t a melodramatic appeal to patriotic buzzwords. Members of the Republican Party have explicitly stated the purpose of voter ID laws is to systematically suppress votes in order to benefit their candidates.

After the 2012 election, former Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer stated, “The Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates. It’s done for one reason and one reason only. … We’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.”

In the spring of the same election year, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai boasted at a Republican gathering that the states new voter ID laws would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight estimated that from 2008 to 2012, the new voter ID laws in both Pennsylvania and Kansas reduced voter turnout of the registered population by 2.4 percent with a 1.2 percent swing to the Republican candidate. If you think these changes are insignificant, look at them in comparison to the voter fraud rate.

Surely, voter ID laws are not a Republican initiative to restore the sincerity of the voting process. It’s a method to legalize discrimination and deny minorities and lower class voters access to political establishments. Yes, Donald Sterling’s comments were ugly and there’s certainly no place for such blatant hatred in our society. However, we must unfortunately accept that no matter the progress made, there will likely always be bigots among us. What we do not have to accept is a barefaced attempt to institutionalize discrimination in order to advance a one-sided political agenda. The ruling in Wisconsin was one small step in the right direction.