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Counter-Framing Voter ID: Voting is a Right, Not a Privilege

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Cross-posted at Project Vote's blog, Voting Matters

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns and Nathan Henderson-James

Project Vote normally uses this update to give news roundups on voting rights-related stories from the past week. However, with the reverberations from the Supreme Court's Crawford vs. Marion County voter identification decision just starting to filter down into statehouses across the country, we felt it was necessary to spend this update concentrating solely on voter ID, giving progressives a concise summary of the problems associated with it and offer some framing devices to help fight against it.

Although voter turnout in presidential primaries has been at an all time high across the nation, voter ID laws bode ill for electoral participation in the future, especially in races that are not subject to the kind of energy and excitement engulfing the contested Democratic nominating contests.

Supporters of strict voter ID requirements often invoke the ease of obtaining ID in order to dismiss any opposition to their measures. Indeed, Justice Antonin Scalia asserted that the burden of obtaining photo identification in order to vote is "minimal and justified," in his opinion upholding Indiana's voter ID law last week. But at least 21 million Americans without valid ID have a different idea of what the Justices deem "minimal". These real people include several elderly nuns and college students in South Bend, Indiana who were turned away from the polls for lacking proper ID Tuesday.

However, to engage solely on the relative size of the barrier to exercising the foundational right of American democracy is to miss the larger frame. Fundamentally, strict voter ID laws exist to stop otherwise eligible people from voting. The battle should not be about the size of the barrier, but about the existence of the barrier in the first place.

For example, many supporters of strict voter ID note that one needs photo ID to board a plane, or obtain a bank loan, or even get a membership at the gym. The difference between these privileges and voting is that voting is a right of citizenship guaranteed by the Constitution. Joining 24 Hour Fitness is not. To declare that we must overcome hurdles to exercise our fundamental democratic right as citizens is a conservative frame designed to case voting as a privilege to be awarded by partisan politicians rather than a right which government at all levels has a responsibility to facilitate, not block.

Here is how voter ID blocks the right to vote, as illustrated in Indiana by the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Voter ID laws are a solution in search of a problem

"The Republican-led effort was designed to combat ballot fraud, said supporters, who have also acknowledged that no case involving someone impersonating a voter at the polls has ever been prosecuted in Indiana," wrote AP reporter, Deborah Hastings Tuesday.

This fact, coupled with a 2007 study by the University of Washington, which found 21.8% of Indiana's black voters and 22% of young voters do not have valid ID, should raise questions on why such a law exists in the first place.

Nationally, 21 million Americans of voting age do not have valid, government issued photo ID, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. This proportion is higher for specific groups, including 6 million elderly citizens and 5.5 million voting-age blacks.

Nationally, between 2002 and 2005, only 24 people were convicted of voter fraud on the federal level. During that same period of time, more than 200 million votes were case in federal elections. Twenty-four convictions from 200 million votes hardly indicates a problem that demands a solution that stops more people from voting than it facilitates.

As these numbers show, Americans take voting seriously and do not misrepresent themselves at the polls. Politicians shouldn't misrepresent the facts to justify unnecessary voter ID laws. With no evidence of voter fraud and a disproportionate burden on certain groups, voter ID laws have nothing positive to offer. Existing laws provide plenty of protection to ensure voting integrity. The only possible conclusion to draw for enacting a law that does not stop the problem it purports to address while simultaneously stopping otherwise eligible citizens from voting is that partisans want to select the electorate that votes, rather than allowing the electorate to select its own representatives. In other words, this is about stopping specific groups of people from participating, rather than addressing any problem with elections in the United States.

Americans have a right to vote, even if they do not have a photo ID

About 12 Indiana nuns, a newly married woman, and at least a dozen students were turned away from the polls in South Bend, Indiana on Tuesday for not having state or federal-issued, photographic proof of identity that reflected their legal names and current residences as recorded on the state's voter rolls, according to Hastings.

Each of these citizens was born with the right to vote once they reach voting age, but none of them had the newly required documents to do so. Lawmakers and many Americans claim that "state IDs are cheap and easy to get" and that it is a simple price to pay to maintain integrity of elections. However, although state IDs are cheap - around $20 - proof of citizenship documents required for state ID applications are not.

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