Will Your Vote Be Counted in November?

Our right to vote is under attack. Again. Historically, we have disproportionately suffered the brunt of political aggression when voting. This election season has seen an exponential rise in efforts to impede our access to the polls. A wave of complex laws, which require voters to present government-issued IDs, represents the greatest hurdle to voting since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of  1965. This legislative tsunami threatens to wipe out the political gains of Blacks.

“The GOP has embarked upon a legislative movement that aims to defeat President Obama and Democrats down the ticket by changing the rules that govern elections throughout the United States,” notes a recent report from the Voting Rights Institute (an arm of the Democratic National Convention [DNC]).

Prior to 2006, no state required government-issued IDs, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The Supreme Court has actually aided states in their anti-voting rights efforts. In 2008 (the same year the Association of Community Organizations for Reform, known as ACORN, voter registration drives came under scrutiny), it upheld that voter ID laws enacted to prevent fraud were constitutional. The Court, however, stressed that a state with such laws must also provide free voter IDs. Easy access to them, unfortunately, is not a given. Since obtaining documents needed to apply for IDs, such as a birth certificate, can cost a voter money, this still amounts to a poll tax.

In 2011, 34 states introduced voter ID laws. Strict photo ID laws were passed in eight states (Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Texas). Additionally, in seven other states (Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Idaho, Michigan and South Dakota), photo IDs are required with certain caveats. The remaining voter ID states still require official IDs, but not photo IDs.

The laws present some hurdles for folks without IDs. Procuring a government ID can be tedious, as anyone who has ever had to obtain a Social Security card or any official document knows, and there’s another problem: Many older constituents born at home lack the documents required to obtain government IDs. Additional laws significantly restrict when a person can vote, how registration drives are conducted and whether someone with a prior conviction can regain voting rights—all in scenarios that negatively impact the Black community.

Some conservative organizations, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful group that brings together state legislators and private interests to support state laws and policy, have been instrumental helping to fund voter ID laws.

“When you have the election of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, where the electorate expanded in a historically diverse way, you now see this kind of voter suppression throughout the country,” NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous told an online journalist.

This year, the fight against assaults on citizens’ voting power must take place on multiple fronts. The legal landscape has changed so much in the last decade that the courts can no longer be the only recourse. We need direct-action campaigns that address the detrimental effects of these laws. Those in need of state-issued IDs must be mobilized and know what type of state IDs will suffice and how IDs can be obtained. 

Most of the states that have passed voter ID laws will accept the following: an unexpired driver’s license, a nondriver’s ID issued by a motor vehicle department and a U.S. passport or a U.S. military photo ID. In addition, Alabama, Kansas and Rhode Island accept student photo IDs issued by a state university. Most of those states also accept handgun licenses, but Rhode Island is the only state that accepts nongovernmental IDs for voting. Constituents should also know that expired driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, other state documents and affidavits might be helpful in obtaining a valid state ID.

“Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, many people were jailed, beaten, and some were even killed for trying to register and vote. We must not step backward toward another dark time in our history. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society. We must fight back,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) last year.

Michéle Alexandre worked as a civil rights attorney before joining the faculty at the University of Mississippi School of Law. She writes frequently about race, ethics and society.

Read more in the July 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine on page 115.