The New Old South

By - Nov 1st, 2005 02:52 pm
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By Phillip Walzak

If you’ve been thinking our modern, enlightened 21st century American society is free of dubious political maneuvers that make it harder for our fellow citizens to vote, then you haven’t been to Georgia lately. Reaching back to the halcyon days of Jim Crow, the state of Georgia has approved new legislation that requires people to show only government-issued photo identification to vote at the polls. Drivers licenses are accepted, but people without them must purchase a state ID card to vote, at a cost of $20 for a five-year card or $35 for 10 years.

On the surface this may seem a small cost, but even these fees create a financial burden for the poorest citizens. And though both the Republican governor of Georgia and the GOP-controlled state legislature have insisted this new policy is necessary to combat voter fraud, the New York Times stated September 12 that “the vast majority of fraud complaints in Georgia, according to its secretary of state, Cathy Cox, involve absentee ballots, which are unaffected by the new law.” Ms. Cox says she is unaware of a single documented case in recent years of fraud through impersonation at the polls.

In the tumultuous days before and during the Civil Rights movement, the poll tax was a tried and true tactic of the forces in the South who were opposed to integration, equality and justice. A per-person fee was assessed on African-Americans in a base attempt to drive them from the political process. It was designed by people in power to prevent others from using their own political voice. It was remarkably effective until the Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that such barriers to participation were unconstitutional, declaring “the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened.”

Not so different from our Southern neighbors.It could be tempting to dismiss the issue because it’s Georgia – a battleground in the Civil Rights movement and, up until 2001, a state that proudly boasted the Confederate stars and bars on its state flag. Yet a glance at our own Republican legislature in Madison reveals that similar proposals could very well become law here in Wisconsin, home of the Progressive tradition.

Like Georgia, those here in Wisconsin without government issued IDs tend to be minorities. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on June 13 that a Department of Transportation analysis found that of “black males between ages 18 and 24, 78 percent lacked a driver’s license,” the largest percentage of any demographic in the study. Other groups in which a majority lacked a driver’s license were black males of any age (55 percent lack a license), Hispanic women of any age (59 percent), and black women, Hispanic men, and Hispanic women between ages 18 and 24 (all between 57 and 66 percent.) “By contrast, only 17 percent of white men and white women of voting age in Wisconsin lack a driver’s license.”

These same demographic groups also tend to struggle the most financially. It is no secret that minority populations in the United States on average have smaller incomes and fewer assets than their white counterparts. Hurricane Katrina highlighted that fact with ruthless efficiency, and if you think the condition is limited to New Orleans, you haven’t been out lately.

“Voter fraud” is a red herring.Like in Georgia, Republican stewards of this proposal in Wisconsin claim that IDs are a necessary counter to the rampant voter fraud that allegedly surfaced in recent elections, and threatens the sanctity of our electoral process. And, just like Georgia, these claims of organized conspiracies to taint elections and defraud the Republic have failed to pass a simple smell test.

When Wisconsin State Republican Chairman Rick Graber and a pair of headline-seeking state senators held a press conference in August to release the ‘findings’ of the GOP investigation into voter fraud, the spectacle rapidly deteriorated into shameless political grandstanding. Each of the examples submitted as evidence about some people double-voting in the 2004 election were quickly dismissed by U.S. Attorney Vincent Biskupic (a Republican) as either clerical errors or examples of fathers and sons sharing the same name.

At the end of the day, the voter fraud claim is a red herring. Have there been inaccuracies, mistakes and confusion during some elections? Yes, but we must remember that these miscues occur in a very low percentage of all ballots cast. Our state electoral system depends on a small cadre of dedicated volunteers who deal with an antiquated process, poor technology, and hundreds of thousands of voters. Mistakes are regrettably part of the process. To this day, there has been no proof of deliberate and premeditated fraud, and no insidious conspiracy unmasked to steal elections by sneaking ineligible voters into the process.

The push for mandatory voter IDs, ostensibly to ensure clean and fair elections, is really about smash-mouth partisan politics. It doesn’t take Karl Rove to realize the demographic groups that may lack IDs predominantly vote Democratic. And the reality is that for thousands across our fair state, like Georgia, to be required to have an ID before they can exercise that to which they are entitled – their vote – is a barrier just like the poll taxes of yesteryear. Mandatory ID is another obstacle for voters to negotiate, and presumes guilt of those who seek only to have their voice heard.

Seventy percent of eligible Wisconsin voters showed up on election day last November to cast their ballots (one of the highest rates in years). That’s a fact that each of us should be proud of, regardless of our political affiliation. It’s a number we should all want to see grow. But a mandatory ID policy could reverse that trend, and voter participation could plummet. Such a policy will invariably target the forgotten, the poor, the underclass and the victims. In other words, those who need their voices heard most.  VS


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