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Jeremiah Goulka: Playing the ID Card

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I must admit that I did occasionally wonder whether there were any Republican machines out there, and the more I heard about the dominating one in neighboring DuPage County, the less I wanted to know.  (Ditto Florida in 2000.)  Still, I knew -- I knew -- that the Dems would use any crooked tool in the box to steal elections.  Therefore America needed cleaner elections, and cleaner elections meant voter ID laws.

Doesn't Everyone Have an ID?

Every once in a while I'd hear the complaint -- usually from a Democrat -- that such laws were "racist."  Racist?  How could they be when they were so commonsensical?  The complainers, I figured, were talking nonsense, just another instance of the tiresome PC brigade slapping the race card on the table for partisan advantage.  If only they would scrap their tedious, tendentious identity and victim politics and come join the rest of us in the business of America.

All this held until one night in 2006.  At the time, my roommate worked at a local bank branch, and that evening when we got into a conversation, he mentioned to me that the bank required two forms of identification to open an account.  Of course, who wouldn't?  But then he told me this crazy thing: customers would show up with only one ID or none at all -- and it wasn't like they had left them at home.

"Really ?" I said, blown away by the thought of it.

"Yeah, really."

And here was the kicker: every single one of them was black and poor.  As I've written elsewhere, this was one of the moments that opened my eyes to a broader reality which, in the end, caused me to quit the Republican Party.

I had no idea.  I had naturally assumed -- to the extent that I even gave it a thought -- that every adult had to have at least one ID.  Like most everyone in my world, I've had two or three at any given time since the day I turned 16 and begged my parents to take me to the DMV.

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Until then, I couldn't imagine how voter ID laws might be about anything but fraud.  That no longer held up for the simple reason that, in the minds of Republican operators and voters alike, there is a pretty simple equation: Black + Poor = Democrat.  And if that was the case, and the poor and black were more likely to lack IDs, then how could those laws not be aimed at them?

Whenever I tell people this story, most Republicans and some Democrats are shocked.  Like me, they had no idea that there are significant numbers of adults out there who don't have IDs.

Of course, had I bothered to look, the information about this was hiding in plain sight.  According to the respected Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, 7% of the general voting public doesn't have an adequate photo ID, but those figures rise precipitously when you hit certain groups: 15% of voting age citizens making less than $35,000 a year, 18% of Americans over 65, and a full quarter of African Americans.

A recent study by other researchers focusing on the swing-state of Pennsylvania found that one in seven voters there lack an ID -- one in three in Philadelphia -- with minorities far more likely than whites to fall into this category.  In fact, every study around notes this disparate demographic trend, even the low-number outlier study preferred by Hans van Spakovsky, the conservative Heritage Foundation's voter "integrity" activist: its authors still found that "registered voters without photo IDs tended to be female, African-American, and Democrat."

The "R" Bomb

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The more I thought about it, the more I understood why Democrats claim that these laws are racist.  By definition, a law that intentionally imposes more burdens on minorities than on whites is racist, even if that imposition is indirect.  Seeing these laws as distant relatives of literacy tests and poll taxes no longer seemed so outrageous to me.

After I became a Democrat, I tried explaining this to some of the Republicans in my life, but I quickly saw that I had crossed an invisible tripwire.  You see, if you ever want to get a Republican to stop listening to you, just say the "R" word: racism.  In my Republican days, any time a Democrat started talking about how some Republican policy or act was racist, I rolled my eyes and thought Reagan-esquely, there they go again"

We loathed identity politics, which we viewed as invidious -- as well as harmful to minorities.  And the "race card" was so simplistic, so partisan, so boring.  Besides, what about all that reverse discrimination?  Now that was racist.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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