Voter ID Laws and the Enduring Legacy of Jim Crow

Clarke Fox, Staff Writer

Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on Aug6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act sought to end the political disenfranchisement of black citizens in the United States. The Act prohibited strategic Jim Crow tactics that had kept blacks from exercising their fundamental American right to vote for nearly a century. Johnson described the landmark piece of legislation as “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.”

Four months removed from the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, an increasing number of black voters are being similarly disenfranchised. They are not alone, as thousands of Hispanics are realizing the same fate. To understand how and why, let me first tell the tale of voter fraud, public enemy number one in today’s electoral process. To confront growing voter fraud, state legislatures have introduced laws that greatly restrict ballot access, making it harder for perpetrators of fraud to cast illegitimate votes. Among the toughest of these measures are photo voter-ID laws, which require voters to provide specific forms of government-issued identification before casting their vote. This makes sense, right? Narrowing the voting window and making voters provide proof of identification are pragmatic buffers to mitigate the depravity of voter fraud and protect the integrity of the democratic process. There’s just one thing—voter fraud doesn’t exist.

From 2000 to 2014, a study conducted by Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola University Law School reported only 31 confirmed cases of voter fraud from a sample taken of more than one billion votes cast in primary and general elections. Yes, that’s billion, with a “b.” It is important to distinguish voter fraud from election fraud. Voter fraud occurs when someone impersonates someone else in order to cast more than one vote, and happens, as I mentioned, almost never. Election fraud, while still rare, actually happens. This type of fraud encompasses ballot stuffing and vote buying measures. The thing is, voter-ID laws do nothing to prevent election fraud, and are concerned entirely with the myth of voter fraud. Why is it that legislatures are increasingly introducing restrictive voting measures that make it more difficult for Americans to vote? Sadly, it’s to systematically disenfranchise certain types of voters, primarily low-income voters of color.

After analyzing the political composition of the state legislatures and governors in the states introducing and implementing voter-ID laws, I discovered that nearly every state had two things in common: Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures. Though 32 states have some form of voter identification laws, I focused on the 15 states that have variations of photo voter-ID laws. Of the 15, 12 states (South Dakota, Georgia, Indiana, Idaho, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia) were led by Republican governors and had Republican-controlled legislatures at the time the laws were introduced and passed. The only exception, Arkansas, saw its law vetoed by Democratic Governor Mike Beebe, who warned that the law risked the “disenfranchisement of voters;” the veto was later overridden by the Republican legislature. The explanation for Republicans’ fixation with voter-ID legislation is rather transparent: the people that the laws disenfranchise most readily—minority and low-income individuals—vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Voter-ID laws have also shown to depress turnout among voters ages 18-24. Yup, you guessed it—another historically Democratic voting block.

Let’s return again to 1965. Among the prohibitions against literacy tests, the Voting Rights Act also required states with histories of black disenfranchisement to submit state-wide changes in voting rules for federal review. This process of federal preclearance, established under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, played an integral part in protecting the voting rights of minorities in historically discriminatory states, and overturned or weakened many voter-ID laws. That was until the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder ruled that states with histories of disenfranchisement no longer had to submit rule changes to the Department of Justice. Several restrictive voting laws, like a 2011 strict photo voter-ID law in Texas, that were previously blocked under the Voting Rights Act were now legal. Shelby gutted the Voting Rights Act, and has allowed many states to strengthen existing voter-ID laws. Less than a month into the post-Section 5 era, North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory, together with his Republican-controlled legislature, expanded a 14-page voter-ID bill into a 57-page behemoth. It was inundated with 48 new measures that restricted early voting periods and disqualified several forms of previously permissible photo identification, including student IDs.

It is estimated that roughly 11 percent of people do not have access to the required forms of identification required by voter-ID laws, the majority being black and Hispanic. In Kansas and Tennessee, black turnout fell nearly three times more than white turnout after voter-ID laws were implemented, as reported by the United States Government Accountability Office. Many are finding that the hurdles in the process of obtaining the adequate identification are often insurmountable. At the end of the bureaucratic maze voters are forced to navigate before receiving sufficient identification, there is usually a cost, ranging anywhere from $14.50 to $58.50. Most low-income individuals are not willing to spend what little disposable income they have on the respective ID, and are thus forced to surrender their right to vote. Voter-ID laws, ostensibly passed to safeguard against voter fraud, are disenfranchising low-income people of color the same way poll taxes did during the Jim Crow era.

The recent wave of Republican-led restrictive voter laws comes in stride with America’s changing demographic fabric. We are quickly becoming a majority-minority country, a trend that is anathema to a party dominated by aging white men. If they don’t act, Republicans risk going the way of the Whigs. Instead of amending policy positions and creating a culture of racial inclusivity, Republicans have decided instead to wage a discriminatory false war on voter fraud to systematically strip core Democratic voting blocks of their right to vote. Racially-driven minority disenfranchisement is alive and well in the United States, as it was so many years ago.

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