When a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, this month, a community took to the streets in protest. In response, people all over the world began to think seriously about issues of race in policing, political representation, and the persistent reality of racial prejudice in our neighborhoods, our institutions, and in ourselves.
While the episode is first and foremost about a young man who did not deserve to die, the empathy and palpable solidarity that have arisen in Ferguson’s wake is a happy development. Of course, those who need their racial consciousness awakened the most have predictably settled on blaming the victim. Yet many whites are indeed concerned about Ferguson, and are looking for ways to act.
So here’s one obvious thing these white people can do to help the black community: Oppose voter suppression in the form of voter ID laws.
The disputed 2000 presidential election, the relatively close margins of subsequent elections, and thoroughgoing political polarization have led to an uptick in concern about election administration. In 2004, Bush-Cheney voters were much likelier to believe their vote was counted accurately. In 2008 and especially in 2012, GOP voters reported much less confidence in the vote.
These concerns played right into the hands of Republican activists and state legislators, who have been actively promoting and enacting voter identification laws.
Ostensibly about preserving the integrity of the electoral process, voter ID laws are a particularly insidious form of racial discrimination. Disenfranchising qualified, Democratic-leaning black voters is both the means and the end.
Legislation differs by state, but generally these laws require voters to present a government-issued photo ID. It turns out that millions of Americans do not have a current, government-issued photo ID. This group is disproportionately drawn from ethic minorities, senior citizens, young voters, disabled people, and the working poor. Even a study that voter ID proponents frequently cite because it minimizes the problem readily admits that that “the adverse effects fall disproportionately on women, African-Americans, and Democrats.”
Honest conservatives make no attempt to hide the real intent of voter ID laws. In a speech highlighting his signature legislative accomplishments of 2012, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Tarzai famously said the state’s new voter ID law “would allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
A judge delayed the Pennsylvania law in 2012 and, this year, it was struck down altogether. Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley ruled that the law “unreasonably burdens” the right to vote. His decision adds, “Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.”
In Wisconsin, a federal judge invalidated that state’s law in one of the most sweeping repudiations to date: “It is absolutely clear that [the law] would prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent ones.”
Though voter ID advocates won a partial victory in North Carolina this month, the tide of legal opinion is rightfully turning against these unnecessary and discriminatory measures. Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court, which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act last year, could uphold the laws in principle. But even then, they would be little more than highly racialized and transparently political ways for Republicans to achieve a net suppression of Democratic votes. In our current context, voter ID laws obviously do more harm than good.
In the gritty streets of Ferguson, citizens are protesting all manner of social injustices that, in large ways and small, privilege whiteness and devalue black life. Now is the time to tell the truth about voter suppression and make a rational and ethical case for whites to disavow these harmful laws.
Fortunately, Missouri’s voter ID proposal is dead—for now. Democrats in the state legislature agreed to let Republicans proceed with an abortion waiting period (which Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed) and a reduced early-voting window in exchange for Republicans abandoning an anti-union bill and the voter ID measure.
At least for the moment, protesters do not imminently face a law that would deny the ballot to thousands of qualified Missouri voters. And in recent weeks, activists have stepped up efforts to register voters in Ferguson, a predominantly black city with an overwhelmingly white police force and city leadership. “Five thousand new voters will transform the city from top to bottom,” Jesse Jackson said, applauding that effort.
Meanwhile, Missouri GOP Executive Director Matt Wills said it was “disgusting” to register voters in Ferguson at the site where Michael Brown was killed. He added that injecting race into the matter is unhelpful. I doubt Wills feels it is disgusting for pro-life activists to register voters at anti-abortion protests.
Without making overwrought analogies to Jim Crow, sensible people of good will on both sides of the aisle should agree that voter ID laws are cynical, deplorable tactics. It is time to wage campaigns based on competing ideas, values, and proposals. Elections should be about turnout, not suppression.
Honest Republicans will admit that their only justification is a win-at-all-costs attitude in which legitimate electors turned away are simply collateral damage. A conservative friend of mine, after being presented with the facts about the nonexistent problem of voter impersonation, conceded the point about the disproportionate impact of voter ID laws on the urban poor. “Why can’t we just phase in these laws over a 10-year period?” my friend asked.
The answer is simple. The GOP doesn’t need to suppress voters in 2024. It needs to suppress them today.
The Party of Lincoln needs to do some soul-searching. In support of reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Ronald Reagan, no civil rights hero, insisted, “We cannot allow any American’s vote to be denied, diluted, or defiled. The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.” Citizens in Ferguson have endured tear gas and a militarized police force. But in a democracy, being turned away from the ballot box is perhaps the ultimate debasement, and we cannot abide it.