The presidential election of 2008 was a pretty emotional experience for a lot of African Americans. Folks who never been compelled to vote in their lives registered and turned out to cast a ballot for the first Black president of the United States. One of my closest friends went to the voting booth carrying a framed picture of her father who had passed away in 1990. She wanted him to “see” the day finally come when America would shatter such a significant glass ceiling. The local paper snapped a picture of her smiling, about the pull the lever. Unfortunately that same image, of Black people voting, is exactly what’s driving suppressive voter ID programs across the nation, according to recent research out of the University of Delaware.
The study was conducted by two professors and a high-school student and asked respondents if they favored laws that required showing some form of government ID in order to vote. Along with this question some respondents saw a picture of a Black voter, some respondents saw a picture of a White voter and some respondents didn’t see a picture at all. Amongst African American and Latino voters, support for voter ID laws remained roughly the same regardless of the color of the person in the photo or no photo at all. But with white respondents there was a significant difference. When shown a photo of white people voting 67% of whites supported voter ID laws, when shown a picture of Black people voting that number jumped up to 73%. What’s even more telling is, the number of whites supporting voter ID after seeing black folks voting went up, regardless of their party identification or racial feelings towards African Americans. The authors concluded and announced to the world that this research shows racial bias in support for voter ID laws. That’s nothing new, the courts,research, strategists and yes even Republicans have all admitted that there is a racial motivation behind the new crop of voter ID laws that magically appeared after President Obama got into office. But these results are actually worse than just an indicator of racial bias in policy.
First, the questioning of the survey itself betrays just how problematic the idea of voter ID is for the average voter and researcher. Most Americans, (even Black folks) have no problem with having to show some form of government issued identification in order to vote. But what type and how many forms of idea is where the racial and political cleavages start to appear. For example, in North Carolina, your student ID – even from a public high-school or college doesn’t count as government identification for the purposes of voting, nor does a driver’s license if it’s from out of state. Yet strangely a North Carolina gun license does count as proper identification. In other words while voter ID laws may be worded in a neutral fashion in application they are clearly geared towards ID’s that African Americans, young people and young professionals, (Democrats) are least likely to have. If white respondents were asked if they agreed with the specifics of North Carolina’s voter ID program I suspect that the gap between support with or without a picture of a black person voting, would be even more pronounced.
However, all of the specific details of voter ID laws, and the racial motivations behind them leave use with a much more sobering question: If voter ID laws are racially driven and supported, how can African Americans hope to overturn or prevent them in areas where the majority voters are White? At first blush, the answer appears to be – nothing. Republican-dominated state legislatures have passed voter ID laws everywhere from Florida to North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. Even states with sizable active African American populations cannot counter gerrymandered districts that keep vote-suppressing Republicans in power. However, in states like Georgia for example, Black voting power on the local level, has been a counter force . County commissioners and district attorneys have started Sunday voting, and led to expansion of voting rights through loopholes despite attempts from the state house to take America back to the 1950’s. If black folks vote locally, and consistently, some voter ID laws can be countered or eliminated long before the Supreme Court decides to actually do anything.
It’s disturbing to know that the mere sight of seeing a Black person exercise their right to vote causes some Whites to support voter ID. Whether exercising that right is a young person, an elderly woman, or a Gen Xer sharing a special moment with a father who passed away too soon to see history in the making their color shouldn’t make a difference. But as long as those attitudes exist and can be measured it’s incumbent upon those of us who still have the right to vote to exercise that right, and make our voices heard. Not just for midterm congressional elections but for every other down ballot race that may influence our full citizenship in America.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College and a frequent guest on Al Jazeera, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox Business. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJasonJohnson