When Voter ID Laws Lead to Disenfranchisement


Having worked as a county coordinator for ACORN perhaps gives me some unique perspective on how Voter ID laws are likely to play out in real life. But if I know firsthand, the designers of these laws have known from strategic, psychological, statistical and practical points of view that the laws would cause lower turnout in poor urban neighborhoods. In other words, the laws are designed to do the exact opposite of what I was trying to do with ACORN.

Though it’s difficult to quantify the effect of voter suppression in 50 states, Hajnal reports in a new study that after Texas implemented a strict voter-ID law, Latino turnout dropped sharply between 2010 and 2014, and the gap between white and Latino turnout increased by 9.2 percentage points. In the rest of the country, the gap between white and Latino turnout decreased over the same period.

Wisconsin adopted a tough photo-ID law, and in Milwaukee, where a large number of African Americans don’t drive or have licenses, turnout declined in 2016 by 41,000 compared with 2012, a 15 percent drop. Turnout was significantly lower than in 2004 and 2008 as well. The dropoff was steepest in the poorest precincts.

“No matter how hard one tries to attribute this to lower voter interest in this election, the stark drop must be attributable to impact of the photo-ID rule,” argues Kristen Clarke, head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

It’s very difficult for Americans who live in car-based communities to understand and avoid being judgmental about mass transit-based communities. In 2004, I was working out of a North Philadelphia office in a heavily black neighborhood. I needed dozens of workers, so I had a lot of interviews and hiring to do. And I had a lot of paperwork.

When I placed an ad in the paper for low-wage temporary work, a line formed down the stairs from my second story office and half way around the block. The applicants ranged in age from 16 to 60, but most of them were under twenty-one. They did not drive. Their families did not own cars. Some of them had photo IDs from school or even from a library or gym, but almost none of them had a driver’s license.

There were no banks in their neighborhood, but an inability to open a bank account was the only liability I could detect. They simply did not need a driver’s license, and the younger among them didn’t need a photo ID to go out drinking or for any other purpose.

But this made hiring them more difficult especially when combined with the fact that they generally had no idea where their birth certificates were, had no passports, and often couldn’t supply their Social Security card. A lot of my time got tied up with helping people figure out how to get enough documents in order that I could pay them.

But that was a sign of something else. There was a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street and a few gas stations nearby, but 95% of the jobs in the neighborhood were off the books. Those who worked had to take mass transit or walk a long way to get to their place of employment. When someone like me showed up looking to make 60 hires, most of them weren’t prepared for it.

Now, if they wanted to get a state-issued identification card rather than a driver’s license that they did not need, they could do that by traveling to the south side of the city and making a couple of transfers. It would cost them to get there and back, and it would cost them to get the ID card. But let me put things in a little perspective.

In order to get my employees paid, I had to get everything cleared from ACORN’s New Orleans’ office, and they weren’t the height of efficiency. Often the checks would come in and one or more would be inexplicably missing. Of course, I was the first person to take blame for this and it was my responsibility to solve it. What quickly became clear is that these checks, as paltry as they were, were going to go straight to PECO to keep the lights and heat on in their apartments. People weren’t working for shopping money.

This was also clear to me from sitting in ACORN’s office where the majority of the visitors were coming in to get assistance in avoiding losing their homes after deceptive mortgage deals resulted in initial teaser rates followed by unsustainable balloon payments.

In this community, most everybody was living close to the edge, and taking a cab to a train to a bus to get to the Division of Motor Vehicles so that they could spend twenty-five bucks on a voter ID card wasn’t a sensible financial decision.

I was trying to organize these folks into voter registration and get out the vote teams. I was very successful at doing it, and I learned a tremendous amount from them. They were hard workers. They were thrilled to have a legitimate paycheck for however brief a time. My best hires would be successful in almost any setting provided they had the opportunity and the training.

But they were all American citizens with the right to vote. And, the voter ID laws were designed to frustrate their ability to exercise that right.

I hear people say that it’s not much to ask for people to have a damn driver’s license. I want to shout expletives at those people, but I try to explain instead.

All people should be able to vote without it costing them anything. Inventing a problem that doesn’t exist (in-person voter impersonation and double voting) to deny these folks their right to vote is wrong.

It’s wrong but it works.

And it may have won the election for Trump.



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