Voter ID laws aim to disenfranchise

Depiction of first vote of freed Black people during Reconstruction, 1870.

Philadelphia – It is being called the new “poll tax” levied as a requirement for voting in parts of the United States.

In 2012, ten states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — passed restrictive voter identification or ID laws requiring documentation that is often difficult or impossible to obtain in order for voters to secure a photo ID.

A total of 19 states have passed ID laws since 2011, making voting harder for the old, the poor, married women and people of color. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 21 million people may be affected; that means 11 percent of eligible voters lack government-issued photo ID cards. Women who may lack proof of citizenship under their current names, the poor, the elderly and African Americans who are less likely to possess documents required by voter ID laws are particularly vulnerable.

The legislation adopted by these states is based on “model” legislation written by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing, corporate-sponsored group that helped develop Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law used by vigilante George Zimmerman to justify killing African-American teenager Trayvon Martin earlier this year.

These laws impact the poor in particular who may lack the funds to secure the required documentation. Canvasses after the last Kansas election found that most people of color who were challenged lived below the poverty line. They did not own cars or have driver licenses, bank accounts or state ID cards. The canvasses found that legitimate, challenged ballots outnumbered fraudulent ballots by 300 to 1.

Native Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. could also be impacted by the new laws. In December Puerto Rico passed a law invalidating previously issued Puerto Rican birth certificates as of July 1. More than a third of the 4.1 million people of Puerto Rican descent living in the U.S. must get new certificates.

More than 10 million eligible voters in the affected states live more than 10 miles from ID offices. This includes an estimated 1.2 million Black and 500,000 Latino/a voters.

Voter ID restrictions are not a problem for the wealthy 1%. They have the required birth certificates, driver’s licenses and passports. Keeping more workers and poor people, particularly women, the elderly and people of color, from voting can only benefit the interests of the rich. Under the 2008 Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision, wealthy corporate donors can practically predetermine the outcome of elections through massive funding of political ads.

Impact in Philadelphia

Ironically, voters in Philadelphia — the “Cradle of Liberty” and home to the historic anti-slavery Abolitionist movement — will be among the hardest hit. It is estimated that more than 18 percent of Philadelphia voters will be negatively impacted.

The Pennsylvania Voter ID law was passed in March under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, referred to by many as “Governor Corporate.” He used the argument that the legislation would prevent “wide-spread” voter “fraud.” Under the new law, voters must produce a photo ID in order to vote in the November election.

For those who lack a state driver license or U.S. passport, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will issue ID cards — providing individuals produce original birth certificates and Social Security cards.

In Philadelphia, more than one in four active voters over age 80, roughly 12,000 individuals, lack the required photo IDs. More than 186,000 registered voters in Philadelphia do not drive and may lack a valid photo ID card. Many of them are people of color.

For many voters, particular the elderly, these documents may be difficult, time-consuming and costly to produce — a particular hardship for those with disabilities or people who don’t live near a PennDoT center, where they must get the ID cards.

An estimated 136,000 Philadelphia voters who participated in at least one election over the last four years may be barred from voting this November because their names don’t match any PennDoT-issued ID. An analysis of state driving records found 9 percent or 758,939 individual voters statewide could not be found in the PennDoT database.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a legal challenge to the voter ID law, says the state’s number is too low because it excludes more than 500,000 registered voters who have expired PennDoT cards that would not be accepted by poll workers.

A University of Washington study estimates that 37 percent of eligible Pennsylvania voters are unaware of the new law and another 13 percent mistakenly think they have acceptable ID.

Challenges to the ID law

Proponents of the Pennsylvania law claim the intent is to prevent in-person voter fraud, yet concede they can’t pinpoint a single instance of the type of “voter impersonation” fraud the law aims to prevent. Most of the fraud occurs with absentee ballots. Under the new law, voters don’t need a photo ID to obtain an absentee ballot.

The real motivation behind the law was revealed by Majority Leader Mike Turzai of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives earlier this year when he told the Republican State Committee that the law would allow Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to carry Pennsylvania in this year’s election.

Two lawsuits challenging the voter ID law are pending in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which will decide on July 25 whether to grant an injunction against the law requested by the ACLU.

The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, the NAACP, the Pennsylvania State Conference and the Homeless Advocacy Project filed the petition, along with 10 voters who cannot obtain birth certificates from other states, have trouble traveling to PennDoT centers because of disabilities, or face other obstacles to voting because of the law.

Along with the lawsuits, mounting public pressure has already led to nine modifications to the law by state officials since March. The most recent was a statement issued July 20 that starting Aug. 1, voters who know their Social Security number and can provide two forms of proof of address can secure a voter ID card.

Protests against the ID law are planned for July 24 in Harrisburg and July 25 in Philadelphia.