Voter ID Laws Are Shutting Out Minorities and Poor Voters


Last Tuesday, I walked into my Johnson County, Kansas polling place and was confronted by the new sign I was expecting to see: “Photo ID Required to Vote.”

Kansas is one of two states, Tennessee being the other, to fully implement new photo ID requirements for November’s election, while seven others states have passed similar requirements that have met with legal challenges or will not be fully implemented for Tuesday’s general election.

The bustling polling place did not seem to be suffering any ill effects thanks to the new law. In fact, the shop owner next door to the strip mall storefront polling station offered her anecdotal assessment of this election stating, “I’ve honestly never seen an election this busy, and I’ve been here since before the 2008 election.”

Excepting the cold, stern glare from the poll worker as she examined my startlingly unkempt appearance in my last driver’s license photo and compared it to my new-found haircut and shave (eventually deciding that it was, in fact, me in that picture), voting was a relatively painless process. But then, I’m not a member of the groups most likely to be affected by laws like this, and neither was the store owner next door, nor anybody I saw actually voting that day.

I didn’t see a single minority race voter, I didn’t see one person walk to the polling station from somewhere other than a personal vehicle, and all of the poll workers were white retirees. Welcome to wealthy, white and conservative Johnson County, Kansas. It’s the largest county in the state by population. Once called the “life-support” system for the rest of the state, this Kansas City suburb is by and large about as far from poverty as the Kansas City Chiefs are from winning a Super Bowl (read, a long damn way). That said, most have worked hard to be able to live in a place like this with top-tier public schools, public services and a safe environment for families and children.

These are not the people who worry how they are going to keep the lights on tomorrow, that their children are alone at home as they try and work two jobs with little or no formal education, and they don’t have to worry that their neighbors might be gang members or drug dealers like other places in the state. It’s easy to support photo ID requirements when you own and drive a car and your biggest concern is how to increase traffic on your multinational corporation’s website.

How do you get an ID, even a free ID, when the only DMV is on the other side of the county and you don’t have a car, it’s only open from 8 to 5 when you’re working hourly shifts, requires you to bring a birth certificate you may not have and keeps you waiting for at least an hour before you can even talk to an agent? Sure, this might be the “perfect storm” of bad conditions, but when you add all of the concerns associated with poverty to the institutional barriers now in place, it becomes clear why voting wouldn’t be a top priority concern to the indigent. Would it be worth the time, money and energy to actually figure out how to vote and then actually take the steps necessary to make it happen if in such a situation?

Nonetheless, photo IDs are now the required in Kansas and Tennessee. It is, however, not the law in Texas for this election thanks to a ruling by a federal court in Washington. While it is a state’s prerogative to decide the manner in which it will hold elections, the precedents being set by courts throughout the U.S. in challenges to ID laws make it difficult to distinguish or predict where the line between legally passable ID laws and unlawful laws that disenfranchise voters lies.

Since the Kansas law is okay and the Texas voter ID law is not, let’s make a comparison based solely on their included provisions. Based on research by the Brennan Center for Justice, there are a large number of similarities between the Kansas and Texas laws. These include:

- Accepting unexpired state issued IDs and driver’s licenses, concealed carry permits, U.S. passports and U.S. military IDs as valid forms of identification for voting

- A Photo ID must be shown when voting in person

- A mechanism for providing free IDs to those who cannot otherwise purchase or procure an ID for the purpose of voting

- Neither state is required advertise how to obtain free IDs for the purposes of voting in the election

- In these two states, there is not an alternative method of voter verification like an affidavit swearing to one’s identity, as are available in some other states like Tennessee, South Carolina and Rhode Island

The last similarity is what makes the Kansas and Texas laws stricter than others around the nation (Alabama and Wisconsin are also members of this group). Obviously, what makes the Kansas law acceptable over the Texas law is in the differences between the two.

- Kansas law provides that absentee ballots must include a copy of a voter’s identification card, unless exempted by permanent disability, religious objection to being photographed or in the case of active duty military service. Kansas accepts student IDs from accredited state higher education facilities as well as tribal ID cards that include a photograph (after a 2012 amendment to the law). Birth certificates are now free to request from the Secretary of State if they are to be used to obtain an ID to vote. Persons over 65-years-old may used an expired ID card.

- Texas law would have allowed naturalization documents to be used as a form of identification, but not tribal IDs or student IDs. The law did not require ID to be provided with absentee ballots. The potential costs of documents needed to obtain an ID are not reduced.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see significant differences between these two laws. Both have aspects that are more and less restrictive than the other. Kansas providing free birth certificate retrieval is an aspect that helps negate the argument that the law imposes an unlawful poll tax, but it's also a complicating factor that adds another step to the process of accessing democracy.

One of the biggest differences though, is that Texas, along with a number of other southern states, must first receive “preclearance” from the Department of Justice before making changes to election law because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The DOJ used this fact to block the photo ID law from taking effect this November.

States that had a history of discriminatory voting practices before 1965 were subjected to this requirement. When the act was renewed in 2006, some Republican legislators objected to this particular portion of the law, claiming that such jurisdictions have since cleaned up their voting rights records and improved access to elections. The act was renewed without the removal of this requirement.

In light of these legislators “cleaning up their act,” it’s also worth noting that the ruling stalling the Texas photo ID law came only two days after another court ruled that the state’s newly drawn congressional districts were made discriminatorily, in violation of the Voting Rights Act to limit representation of Latino and black voters. Texas defended itself by claiming that the effects of its redistricting efforts on minorities were merely coincidental, an argument ubiquitously rejected by the court.

This is the real difference between the Kansas and Texas photo ID requirements: the money, political will and instrumentation (the preclearance requirement) exist within the federal government to stop the Texas law, but not the Kansas law.

Kansas is Kobach country. Kris Kobach, the mastermind behind the infamous Arizona immigration law and who provided direction to Alabama’s conservative legislators as they crafted their own, even more restrictive immigration law, is the Secretary of State here who won his 2010 campaign on the promise of stopping voter fraud. Despite Kansas having the dubious distinction of being among the six states most likely to face vote count issues this November, Kobach focused his efforts before and once in office on establishing voter ID laws instead of attending to the issues of non uniform voting procedures that could create a far more significant problem than election fraud (such as allowing troops to submit ballots via email, a notoriously unsafe medium for something as important as a ballot), as the Huffington Post reported in July.

Did you know that voter fraud is a real problem in Kansas? I didn’t either. Fortunately, Kobach informed us that nearly 2,000 “deceased” individuals were registered to vote, each potentially creating an opportunity for voter fraud. His most solid example was one Alfred K. Brewer, a Republican from near Wichita, with a birth date listed in 1900 and who had allegedly died in 1996, had also voted in the August primary.

The Wichita Eagle found otherwise: Reached Thursday at his home where he was raking leaves, Brewer, 78, was surprised some people thought he was dead. "I don't think this is heaven, not when I'm raking leaves," he said.

I feel the need to point out that my first time voting at the ripe age of 18, I was listed as a 38-year-old in the registration database.

The point is that it doesn’t really matter here if what he sees as a problem empirically is or not, because the will of the people and the money is on his side. Conservative masses are willing to eat it up so long as it makes them feel safer in some way, and we do have those masses in Kansas.  With billionaires like the Koch brothers fueling Kansas politics, the line between what is good or bad, right or wrong, especially in terms of public policy, is but a skewed line on the horizon on a foggy night. So much for the rights of the minority and the 11% of otherwise eligible U.S. voters who don’t have ID.

I do have a hard time believing the argument that photo ID laws exist with the intention of disenfranchising lawful voters. These laws make logical sense to those already equipped to handle them, and are intended to protect the sanctity of our elections. But in doing so, they disproportionately disenfranchise those who aren’t from places like Johnson county, and who don’t have wealth, security or a political lobby backing them up.

The reason we cannot find the line between which voter ID laws are okay and which are not is due to an ongoing battle in our country, the tyranny of the majority versus the rights of the minority. Is it worth sacrificing individual freedom to be protected from our enemies? Our enemies here are the faceless, non-quantified unlawful voters who might represent, as the Carnegie-Knight Foundation’s News21 reported, one out of every 15 million voters.

I don’t buy the logic that protection from a nearly nonexistent threat is worth sacrificing the right to participate in democracy for millions of potential voters. Even if the majority support such laws, it doesn't make them right. 

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.” – Thomas Jefferson