by Emmanuel Vega
There is less than a week left until people head to the polls to cast their votes for the 2016 general election. Voter registration volunteers ramped up efforts to register as many people as they could before Virginia’s October 17th registration deadline. Community Organizations and Advocacy Groups made a huge push to register minority voters. However, in states like Virginia, just registering and showing up to the poll will not gain a person the right to vote. Virginia residents will have to present valid photo identification in order to cast their ballots on the 8th of November.
Controversy surrounding Voter ID laws has been raised throughout this election cycle. Having had the opportunity to register people to vote in the Charlottesville, VA community, I’ve made a strong emphasis on providing Voter IDs to black and Latino voter because those are a couple groups that will be most disproportionately affected by the policy. I believe the push for Voter ID laws is partially in response to the growing number of minority voter populations in the US. Voter ID laws are a way to suppress the growing voice of the minority voter population. Advocates against the policies argue that voter ID laws have the potential to skew elections and that they target minorities. In August of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 4th circuit stated that North Carolina legislature was racially discriminatory, “by targeting voters who, based on race, were unlikely to vote for the majority party.” Advocacy organizations such as the ACLU, LULAC, League of Women Voters, and NAACP have all challenged state-passed Voter ID laws in states such as North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Kansas. They argue that providing valid photo ID at polls explicitly discriminates against minority and low-income voters.
The attempt to implement Voter ID laws in Virginia goes back to 1999, after the state attempted to implement a voter ID pilot program in Arlington and Fairfax. Proponents of Voter ID laws have argued the need to protect the integrity of the voting process by preventing voter fraud. The Supreme Court of Virginia blocked the pilot program in a 5 to 1 vote. State Legislature proposals for Voter ID laws rose after the Supreme Court Decision on Shelby County v Holder nullified Section 4(b) in the Voting Rights of 1965 that required states with recent history of racial discrimination in voting procedures to have a preclearance from the Department of Justice or a DC Federal Court in to change a state election law. There are currently 35 States with Voter ID laws passed, with many of them currently being challenged in court.
Proponents of Voter ID Laws argue that voter turnout will not be affected. They also argue that other parts of the Voting Rights Act will protect minorities from voter discrimination. Proponents of Voter ID Laws are discontent with their ongoing dismantling in the courts, believing that civil litigation is hampering the improvement of voting procedures. However, opponents believe that in-person voter fraud is insignificant relative to the repercussions of the enactment of the laws. The Brennan Center for Justice found that incident rates of voter fraud are “between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent”. Opponents also point out that getting a voter ID costs money and time. In U.S. DC District Court Case Texas v Holder, a Texas State Senator testified that in his majority Latino rural district, some individuals have to travel between 100 to 125 miles to reach the nearest office issuing Voter IDs. This creates a barrier of class privilege to obtaining Voter ID’s. Many people are unable to take time off work to obtain a voter ID during business hours. This especially hurts low-income individuals, who are disproportionately non-white. Opponents argue that Voter ID laws deter poor and minority people from voting before they even arrive at the polls.
Voter ID laws are only one of several restrictions over history to suppress the minority vote in the US. The Grandfather clause and literacy tests directly targeted African-Americans during the Jim Crow Era until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Grandfather Clause said that anyone who had the right to vote before 1867, and their descendants, were exempt from educational, property, or tax requirements. As the 15th Amendment granting former slaves the right to vote was not ratified until 1870, this almost exclusively left non-whites with the nearly unattainable requirements. Minority populations continue to suffer other injustices in the voting process into the present. Requirements to demonstrate residency target homeless people who are unable to give a fixed address during registration. African-Americans and Latinos make up a disproportionate number of convicted felons in the US. Individuals with felonies are unable to vote unless given a pardon. In Virginia, Governor Tim McAuliffe’s effort to provide 100,000 former felons with pardons was struck down by the Republican-appointee dominated Virginia Supreme Court. This has essentially left a disproportionate amount of African Americans and Latinos as second class citizens.
Implementation of many voter ID laws have been halted because of court challenges of unconstitutionality. Consequently, we may not see a significant effect from voter ID laws in National elections. However, with implementation in Virginia, we can see how these laws could affect State turnout of minorities. Voter ID laws are not only a legal injustice, but the symbol of an old majority that is not ready to recognize the changing demographic of the US. A new minority demographic that will continue to grow and influence the policy direction of the US. States will need to reevaluate their voter laws as courts claim that the implementation of Voter ID laws are racially discriminatory, and hence unconstitutional. There’s also the hope in the future that States will encourage the easing of voter restrictions. This includes online voter registration and early voting, and potentially online voting in the future.