By Jillian Underwood @JAU_Fisher
Since the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, the discussions about voter ID laws and restrictions have gained momentum. By the 2012 election, multiple bills and initiatives that opponents alleged violated a most fundamental right were introduced to state legislatures. In 2011 alone, over 30 states had laws introduced that would require voters to present a government-issued ID, while other restrictions include showing proof of citizenship, shortening or eliminating early voting time frames, and repealing same day election registration. Proponents for these restrictive laws argue that these measures will prevent voter fraud. However, studies show that voter fraud, and especially voter impersonation, is almost non-existent. In fact, most alleged fraud in elections is unintentional mistakes by voters or polling administrators.
Thus, these policies are being implemented based on incorrect information or myths. But these policies and sentiments have real social repercussions. These restrictions make it harder for all Americans to vote, but they especially disenfranchise minorities, the elderly, people with disabilities, and students. These groups are less likely to have updated government issued IDs and do not have the resources or means to take off work to obtain IDs, much less to vote or coordinate transportation to the polls. To make matters worse, in June 2013, the Voters Rights Act of 1965 that required areas that have a history of discriminatory voting practices to obtain federal approval before changing an election law, was struck down by the Supreme Court with a 5-4 ruling. Chief Justice John Roberts stated that the decision was made because the law was no longer needed. Backlash quickly ensued as President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and civil rights leaders voiced their disappointment. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Badger Ginsburg insisted that the act was still very much needed and generally had overwhelming bipartisan support. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in (the court’s) utter failure to grasp why the (law) has proven effective,” Ginsburg wrote.
As 2014 kicks off, there appears to be a small glimmer of hope. In the past two weeks The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, a response to the repeal of the 1965 Act, was introduced to Congress. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission rejected requests by Arizona, Georgia, and Kansas to modify federal registration forms to fully implement proof-of-citizen voting laws, and a lower court struck down Pennsylvania’s voter ID law. The judge stated that the voter ID law “hampered the ability of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians to cast their ballots, with the burden falling most heavily on elderly, disabled and low-income residents, and that the state’s reason for the law — that it was needed to combat voter fraud — was not supported by the facts.”
While these measures are good news and hopefully a sign of people realizing that voter restriction laws are harmful, there is still a lot of work to be done. While they applaud the efforts of the new Voting Rights Act, civil rights organizations such as the ACLU argue that the bill is still problematic as it does not take enough steps to protect those vulnerable to the voting changes. And although courts are recognizing that voter fraud is a myth, politicians and state officials are still aggressively advocating for restrictive laws.
I currently reside in Arkansas but am a native from Kansas, both of which have been subjected to voter restrictions. In 2013, Arkansas enacted a Voter ID law that requires voters at the polls to show a government issued ID and absentee voters to send in copies of IDs or documents proving address. As expected, confusion and frustration ensued during a county election in mid January as officials questioned the validity of some absentee votes. Local civil rights groups are desperately trying to overturn the voter restrictions in Arkansas before the primary elections in May. As for my beautiful home state, unfortunately we have political leaders that have become household names, and not for good reasons. Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, is best known for his role during the Arizona anti-immigration law but has also made “voter fraud” a top priority in Kansas. Kansas’ Voter ID law was passed in 2011 and went into effect the beginning of 2013. By November 2013, the Secretary of State’s office set up a two-tiered system for voter registration (without proper procedures such as legal authority or public notice) that makes it so some Kansans cannot vote in state elections. This means that some citizens can vote for the next president but could not vote for the next Secretary of State or Governor. Also, as previously mentioned, although it was struck down Kobach tried to fully implement proof-of-citizen voting laws.
Kobach’s stance is that he is trying to protect the elections and voters. In a Wall Street Journal article written shortly after his Voter ID law was passed, he cited that in 13 years there has been over 220 incidents of voter fraud in Kansas, including absentee ballot fraud and a “host of other violations.” He argues that you need a photo ID to cash a check or board a plane so it’s reasonable to require one in order to vote. While at first glance this may seem like a good point, cashing a check or flying is not protected under the constitution. A responsorial by ACLU’s Voting Right’s Project explains that the Photo IDs only confirm identity at the polls, which out of the 221 instances would have only stopped the 16 noncitizen registrations. Again, the major issue is that voter registration policies are a manifestation of a political polarization of the country. Further, we are wasting time and resources by implementing polices that are not solving a problem, but instead are contributing to more social inequalities and violating fundamental rights.