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The case against voter ID laws

Matthew Mkeczko | Thursday, November 1, 2012

Given the upcoming election, attention has been directed towards the recent efforts by state legislatures to protect against voter fraud by requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot. I applaud The Observer for featuring this topic in Monday’s paper, as I believe it to be an important conversation to have. I would, however, like to respectfully present the case against voter ID laws and shed light on what they mean for our democracy.

First, turnout in United States elections is abysmal. Just 55.45 percent of the voting age population casted a ballot in 2008 compared to Denmark’s 83.2 percent in 2007 or Sweden’s 82.63 percent in 2010. Considering the growing number of citizens – including students of this university – that throw away their votes, it’s not only hard to make the case for more voting requirements that will decrease turnout even further, but also justify them on the grounds that our elections are something sacred to be upheld.  

Perhaps since turnout is so low and any one vote now has more influence, the need to ensure the validity of each ballot becomes all the more important. Yet, when the top 20 percent of earners are about twice as likely to vote as the bottom 20 percent of earners in the country, it’s important to keep in mind whose votes are being protected and increasingly whose voices are being heard. The utter lack of any dialogue on issues relating to poverty or homelessness in the presidential campaign is striking.  Additionally, we have the right to not vote at all and that’s fine, but we are increasingly protecting the rights of people to throw away their votes while challenging the rights of people, who, in many cases, want to vote.

Moreover, when News 21 conducts a study and finds 10 incidents of voter impersonation in all elections since 2000, the idea that voter ID laws are justified is ridiculous. Our government can’t bring itself to pass a budget, yet we don’t seem to have any trouble passing bills that Pennsylvania’s house majority leader claimed would “allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” How ironic it is that one student interviewed in The Observer would think my concern is “inserting a political agenda on an apolitical issue.”

On the surface, a voter ID bill seems completely reasonable, but it undeniably disenfranchises minorities, the poor, the elderly and college students. Even if these were unintended consequences, we certainly understand them now, which begs the question: If voter impersonation is such a non-issue, why are we still so adamant about these voter ID laws?

Talk to Brian Metz, a Notre Dame senior, who can’t vote in this year’s election because his home state of Tennessee won’t allow him to cast his first ballot by mail, even though he is registered and can confirm his identity. Talk to someone in Kenosha, Wisc., without a car or license. In the case of a voter ID law, he or she would have to miss work, somehow find a ride to the DMV out in the county where the buses don’t run and wait in line to obtain an ID to vote. Talk to a resident of the South Bend Center for the Homeless, someone who wants to vote but doesn’t have a birth certificate, social security card or passport to obtain a “free” ID to vote. That resident must cast a provisional ballot on Election Day, somehow go to the county-city building within 10 days after election day and, in the presence of the circuit court clerk, sign an affidavit of indigence. Then and only then, after going through the demeaning process of making it known that they are so poor they can’t even prove their citizenship, will their vote be counted, even though the election will be decided well-before then.

Even if someone were to adhere to the law, nobody seems to understand it. It took numerous phone calls to the Election Division under the Indiana Secretary of State to find anyone who understood the voting process for homeless citizens. The fact that our government officials don’t understand election laws that have passed, especially how they affect the poor, is highly suspect. And voter ID laws don’t even skim the surface of the problem. Voter intimidation and phony voting instructions by poll workers are an issue. Moreover, most states ban convicted felons from ever voting again.  

But who cares about these people?  These voter ID laws, reminiscent of Jim Crow poll taxes and literacy tests, are the nail in the coffin for people that have already such little incentive to vote. Why would these citizens vote in a system that not only ignores their interests, but has open contempt for them as people?

The persistence with which people advocate for these voter ID laws highlights the anti-democratic, intolerant notion alive and well in America: the notion that someone’s right to marry somehow infringes on my right to marry, that someone’s right to healthcare somehow infringes on my right to healthcare and that someone’s right to vote somehow infringes on my right to vote. We need to stop framing our differences in terms of what they take away from us, but what we can give to each other. It is a privilege to live in a country that subscribes to that ideal, to live in that social contract and those that still enjoy their right to vote should set a new precedent that encourages us to live up to that ideal.
 

Matthew Mleczko is a sophomore economics and political science major, as well as a Hesburgh Program in Public Service minor. He can be reached at mmleczko@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.