I spent the last seven columns describing the history of voting in America. It was details everyone should know, but it was also written to provide context for what I’m writing next, which is a brief look at voting problems in the present. You can’t understand the present without understanding the past. If you want to refresh your memory, you can see the previous columns at SpartaLive.com or at my blogsite, tnwordsmith.blogspot.com.
So, let’s talk about voter ID, something that has become a hotly debated topic this past decade. The first time I heard about it as an issue was in 2005, at a Southern History conference. I met a man who had been a civil rights lawyer, in Georgia, since the 1960s and was about to retire. He was angry about that state crafting a voter ID law and warned that other conservative states would do the same in coming years - and that it was one of the biggest civil rights challenges coming around the bend, one which could undo years of work.
My reaction was probably the same one many of you would have - or have had. What’s the big deal about voter ID, I asked. That doesn’t seem like a problem. You need ID to do practically anything nowadays. And wouldn’t it prevent fraud?
Almost all the states with voter ID laws lean conservative. The reason they give is to prevent voter fraud, which sounds reasonable. But there is absolutely no empirical evidence of widespread voter fraud. When you do something to address a problem that is not really a problem… that is not really the problem you are addressing, it is a cover up.
11 percent of adult Americans don’t have a driver license or other government-issued ID… but 25 percent of black Americans don’t. Why not? Many live in large cities, where a car - a big expense for a poor person - is not necessary. Now, going to GET an ID - even if the ID itself is free - costs time and money. Sometimes an applicant has to travel a considerable distance (and they don’t have a car). In order to get the ID, you have to have a lot of paperwork - which often does cost money to get. Travel and long lines mean the process could take several hours. If you have ever been among the working poor (and I have), missing a day of work might mean not being able to pay your bills. Altogether, the process could cost a poor person $100 or more. Therefore, voter ID laws suppress voter turnout among poor people.
Remember our earlier column about how voting laws during the Jim Crow era suppressed the black vote by making it expensive to do so? And how that was an end-around to suppress black turnout without mentioning the word “race?”
Sound farfetched? In 2012, a GOP leader, in Pennsylvania, said, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” Literally the day after the Supreme Court took away the Voting Rights Act restriction on formerly segregated states changing voter laws without federal approval (in 2013), North Carolina issued a voting law that courts have repeatedly struck down, saying it specifically targets black voters. Additionally, records were discovered which showed that Republican North Carolina legislators had approved a study of voting habits in black neighborhoods and specifically curtailed only the voting procedures frequently used there. In addition to the voter ID element, some states have closed polling places, making it necessary to take a longer trip and wait in line perhaps all day to vote… with similar tactics for sites to obtain an ID. Maybe this is not about race as much as suppressing votes in Democratic districts, but the effect is the same.
What if every state with voter ID laws made getting them, and voting, easier instead of harder? More sites, free transportation? But they don’t.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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