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Vote Suppression in New York?!?

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(Article changed on November 7, 2012 at 15:28)

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This election day morning I went with my lover and our friend down to 80-55 Cornish Ave to vote in the wonderfully diverse neighborhood of Elmhurst, NYC.  Our plan was to get the vote over with while it was early, get some patacons at Patacon Pisao down the street, and then get on with our respective days.  I was surprised when my lover pulled out her passport (she, like most New Yorkers, does not drive).  The poll station worker, a Republican, had asked her for ID.  I did a double take because I was under the impression that New York was not on the list of states seeking to make the vote whiter, richer and more middle age, so I did not expect New York poll workers be asking for IDs.

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Those who have followed the controversy around new voter-disenfranchisement laws are aware that predominantly Republican state governments have passed these laws in several states.  I myself have paid most careful attention to developments in my birth-state: Pennsylvania.  PA's Republican governor Tom Corbett signed a law this year requiring photo ID of all voters.  Pennsylvania House Republican leader Mike Turzai explicitly stated that the law would "allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania".  Yet Corbett's law met some legal resistance and the result of the wrangling that followed was an odd compromise: the final decision before election day allowed poll workers in Pennsylvania to ask for ID, but not to turn away a voter who refused to produce one.  Since this kind of thing can result in intimidating confusion, I had supposed that New York, under slightly less atrocious governance at the moment, was sensitive enough to the history of Jim Crow not to even ask for voter ID.

As it turned out, I was not the only one with this impression standing in line this morning.  Right behind us was a man who said he worked in the state Attorney-General's office.  He began screaming at the poll worker, telling him that asking for ID in NY is illegal and that he could go to jail.  The poll worker flashed him a nervous half smile perhaps because he assumed the man was crazy (the man's reaction certainly contrasted with the subdued demeanor of those around him).  As the one way altercation progressed, the nervous poll worker's Democratic counterpart whispered to me that they were checking IDs to more efficiently look up the name on the registration sheet.  Some other poll workers also came to the rescue saying that they had all been trained to ask for IDs from everyone.  This, of course, did not satisfy the man from the Attorney General's office.  Systematic misunderstanding of NY law across an entire poll site is considerably worse than a misunderstanding by one poll worker.

I caught up with the apparently crazy person as he was storming out in fury to make his report to the Attorney General, and he noted that since he helped to write the law, he was quite sure that what he had seen was in violation of it.  In fact, there was a written notice right in front of the polling workers stipulating that the only voters who needed to show ID were those who had something written by their registration that stipulated as much.  Also, a little scouring of the internet confirmed that indeed asking New York voters for ID at the voting booth is illegal, and this violation of protocol by poll workers has been a problem in the past.

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After calling 212-VOTE-NYC to report the de jure intimidation (they eventually promised to send in monitors) I made some inquiries on facebook and elsewhere and found another couple of people who said they had been asked for ID--both living in different (also diverse) districts, and both noting that the excuse the poll workers gave them was that they needed to be able to "find their names" in the registration book.  This suggests that poll workers may have been systematically misled in several not-so-white districts.  This is not the fault of the poll workers, however, but rather the fault of whoever devised their training.  Certainly that one unfortunate poll worker did not deserve to be shouted at and threatened with jail time for having been misled about the nature of New York law.  

Nevertheless, something should have occurred to poll workers who were told that checking IDs was an efficient way to figure out how to spell people's names.  Telemarketers making random-digit-dialing calls to catalog consumer habits all manage to get the names of their victims without needing to see their IDs.  They simply ask the person on the other end of the line to spell out their name: a rather elegant solution to the lack of visual intimacy.  If telemarketers can accomplish this simple task, poll workers should be able to marshal the cognitive resources to do the same.  Once the name is spelled out, all the voter has to do is point to their name in the registration book when the poll worker finally finds the page.  Indeed, this is how NY poll workers did things the last couple of times I voted in exactly the same district.  I simply told them my name, they looked it up, I pointed to my name when I saw it, I signed by the signature I had given them with my registration card, and then I went to vote.  It was a simple process, not requiring a PhD in engineering to muddle through.

After making as much of a stink about the event as I am capable of within my limited (social) media reach, I found myself dismayed to have some people ask me why it was such a big deal to require ID of voters.  To answer that question with conscientious attention to potential counterarguments requires a little extra detail, and a thorough explanation about why voter ID laws are atrocious violations of equal protection can be found in this fact sheet from the ACLU.  My own shorter explanation of why I sided with the screaming man from the Attorney General's office was essentially this:

In New York, the state gets hold of your signature when you register. You sign by your registration-obtained signature when you arrive at the polls, and the matching signatures let poll workers know you've been counted (and the record prevents you from voting twice).  Once poll workers have that matching signature, there is really no need to ask for ID.

As for what should ideally be the appropriate laws regarding voter requirements, it depends on how moved you are by the context of U.S. history.  Theoretically, it is no more unreasonable to ask for photo ID than to ask for, say, evidence of ability to read and write, knowledge of all candidates' policies, an official copy of a bachelor's degree, or $20 to offset the cost of conducting the polls (and to show that the voter is capable of the bare minimum of entrepreneurial resourcefulness to count as a real American).  As reasonable (?) as these requirements may seem in theory, however, some of them have been used historically to disenfranchise voters, particularly non-white voters and low income voters.  Asking for IDs at the poll station effectively picks away at these demographics also, while in addition siphoning off the youngest and oldest ends of the tails in the voter distribution.  In aggregate, the complex voter demographic diminished by ID inquiries tends to not vote for Southern segregationists (in the 1950s) or for Republicans (today). Thus the Southern segregationist/Republican political advantage of suppressing the votes of such voters is painfully obvious.

In sum, anyone at all sensitive to the history of voter disenfranchisement as a manifestation of group-on-group oppression in U.S. history would be opposed to any unnecessary restrictions on voting (unless of course they view the infliction of that oppression fondly, which is unfortunately the case for some).  The law in NY forbidding requests for ID was almost certainly written with this history in mind.  Also, to the extent that NY has not previously asked for ID (they did not ask for it the last couple of times I voted in the same district), to ask for it now is very uncool.  Such a sudden and disruptive change in the procedures potentially discourages people from voting who were previously used to it, and to do this is to stick a finger in the eye of the 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

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A reasonable remaining question, though, is why would anyone bother trying to suppress votes in New York?  Of course suppressing votes in Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, etc. has obvious advantages--these are all potentially swing states.  But New York is about as much of a swing state as Utah.  It seems like a waste of precious vote-suppressing resources to go to the trouble of misleading poll workers into asking for IDs in contravention of NY state law.  

Perhaps Hurricane Sandy is a part of the equation to consider.  Sandy caused enough disruption in the Northeast to potentially lose Obama 300,000 votes.  These lost votes would not matter much for the Electoral College, but for the popular vote they might have more significance as that particular aspect of the presidential race is within the polling margin of error as I write [next day note: Romney lost and Republicans lost seats in the Senate; a sigh of relief heard around the world].  And Republicans could benefit in future elections from having Obama win the election on a technicality only.  As George W. Bush will testify, governing as an illegitimate president is no fun.  Things got a lot better for Bush after 9/11 of course [1] , but prior to that gift of fate, Bush was not having the best of times.  Unless Obama can be blessed by a comparable national disaster on which to ride to popularity in spite of illegitimacy, a popular vote loss for him would be a strategic boon to the Republican Party.

Of course, it might not be the worst thing in the world to turn Republicans against the Electoral College--the institution was not motivated by the Founding Father's unmitigated enthusiasm for democracy after all (they were honestly a bit tepid about democracy, by contemporary standards).  And it may not be the worst thing to chasten Obama either.  Indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, drone warfare, extrajudicial assassinations of American citizens and their children, cracking down on whistle-blowers, intimidating journalists, H.R. 347; not to mention toadying to "clean coal," fracking, the Keystone XL pipeline and Wall Street generally--these are all marks of shame on the Obama administration.  If Obama were running against someone less atrocious than Romney (or if our democracy were advanced enough to field someone like Green Party candidate Jill Stein as a likely rival) he would deserve to be made a one term president.  Still, that does not mean that those inclined to vote for him also deserve to have their voting rights violated.

By the time this article goes online, one candidate or the other will have won, and a few incidents of apparent voter intimidation in New York will probably not be a huge factor in the result, but I hope that New Yorkers reading this will become more aware of their own state law so next time around they can assert their rights under that law (calmly, and with more attention to information-gathering than to punitive shouting).  And I hope that those outside New York will consider working for voting laws that will enshrine those rights also--they are our Constitutional rights after all.

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Ian Hansen is an Associate Professor of psychology and the 2017 president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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