Discourse

Framing voter ID laws as 'Jim Crow' denies the triumph of the Civil Rights movement

The continued framing of voter ID laws as particularly and intentionally anti-black 67 years after the Civil Rights Act is disingenuous.
Libby Emmons
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

The continued framing of voter ID laws as particularly and intentionally anti-black 67 years after the Civil Rights Act is disingenuous. The Civil Rights movement was an incredible achievement that, since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to the present, has created vastly more equality under the law and has increased participation of black people in the US across all spectrums of society.

Black Americans are political leaders, intellectual leaders, literary and artistic leaders, as well as corporate leaders, and the prevalence of black people in American public life has grown to the point of being commonplace, as it should be.

Writing in The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie gives a history lesson about the way voting laws were specifically used to disenfranchise black voters. One of the ways was by requiring people to register to vote, which Bouie states "had a stark and negative effect on turnout, made worse by the discretion given to registrars." He quotes J. Morgan Kousser from his The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910.

That book, from 1974, details that more than a century ago, "...registrars, appointed indirectly by the Democratic legislature, could require that a voter prove 'as near as may be' his 'age, occupation, place of birth and place of residency… by such testimony, under oath, as may be satisfactory to the registrar.'" Certainly these things are commonplace knowledge in today's America. We have to know these things, shy of occupation, simply to register for kindergarten, to which we're all required to go.

Bouie writes that "In addition to registration requirements, there were the now-infamous literacy tests. In Virginia, a potential voter had to read a section of the state or federal constitution — and persuade the registrar that he understood the words — in order to qualify to vote. Mississippi's similar requirement came with an 'understanding clause' that allowed a would-be voter to cast a ballot only if he could understand the text read to him."

Now, ballots are printed in as many languages as are spoken in the US. There are interpreters to help, there are brail ballots, there are voter registration drives held by municipal governments. There used to be "poll taxes," and the very idea today would be balked at. No one would charge a citizen to cast a vote.

Bouie concludes that Georgia's voting law are "Jim Crow adjacent." He states that "it plays at neutrality while placing burdens on specific groups of voters on a partisan (and inescapably racial) basis…"

Bouie then tracks through the law—which expanded early voting, enacted measures to permanently keep ballot boxes for the depositing of absentee votes, made it possible for voters, in these near-post-pandemic times, to have three months in which to request a mail-in ballot, requires that voters are who they say they are when casting those absentee votes, and fixes the number of hours polling places must be open.

"Even if these provisions didn't directly burden Democratic voters," Bouie writes, "they may raise the cost of mobilization for Democratic-leaning groups, who will need to invest more and greater resources into assisting voters with new barriers."

In the US, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Nebraska, Oregon, New Mexico, New York, California, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wyoming, are the only states, along with Washington, DC, where an ID is not required to cast a ballot. Although in all of these places, identification is required when registering to vote, or when a voter casts their first ballot if they had previously registered by mail.

If identification is required in order to register to vote in the first place, how is it disenfranchising to require it during subsequent elections?

The voter IDs which are required in many states can be obtained free of charge. The state of Georgia, which was the subject of so many concerns as to voter integrity during the last election, has now required that voters verify that they are who they say they are whether voting in person or by mail.

Voting is not the only thing in Georgia, or across the country, that requires ID. ID is required to get a vaccination against COVID. ID is required to drive, rent and apartment, fly in a plane, or to access government benefits. ID is required to buy alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or to book a hotel.

Bouie's final concern is not that these laws are specifically going to do away with voting rights in Georgia, but that, essentially, they are a slippery slope to further disenfranchisement. He writes "Put a little differently, the thing about Jim Crow is that it wasn't "Jim Crow" until, one day, it was."

His arguments, based in bad, racist laws from the 1880s through the 1960s, completely ignore the massive success and huge impact of the Civil Rights movement on American society and politics. It's as though Bouie, a celebrated New York Times columnist and author, would like to ignore that the movement and the ensuing federal legislation never happened.

Nothing is gained by downplaying the gains made toward racial equality in the US. When we deny the progress, and gloss over the achievements of our forefathers in the Civil Rights movement, we do ourselves the disservice of believing that progress is impossible, that we are mired in the abhorrent, racist ways of the past. We are not.

Laws to ensure free and fair elections, to ensure that those who are casting votes are who they say they are, are in place in most of American states, yet only Georgia is facing this massive backlash. By Bouie's own logic, it seems the Democrats have it in for Georgia, not for voter ID laws.

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