A Poll Tax By Any Other Name
On Dec. 7, 2016, the Michigan House passed a piece of legislation requiring photo identification to vote, joining seven other states with similar laws. Though a seemingly inconsequential barrier to voting, it is just another example of the wasteful campaign against voting rights perpetrated by conservative lawmakers across the country.
As reported by Jonathan Oosting of The Detroit News, this new law requires registered voters to either present identification at the poll or cast a provisional ballot, which would then require them to bring a photo id to the local clerk’s office within 10 days. The vast majority of voters have some form of photo I.D. However, as voting is an essential right in any country calling itself a democracy, barriers to voting need to be as low as possible.
Those most affected by this legislation will be those who live around the poverty line. The legislature has set aside millions in appropriations to provide free identification for those who cannot afford it, but this neglects the issue of time, a resource in short supply for those living paycheck to paycheck and may not have easy access to government offices.
These appropriations raise another issue: the wastefulness of this legislation. In his investigation for The Washington Post, Philip Bump found just four cases of confirmed voter fraud in the 2016 election, none of which were in Michigan. The Michigan House decided to spend more than $11 million on an issue without any evidence of said issue having even occurred in Michigan. To further put this into perspective, Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt conducted a survey of more than 1 billion votes, finding just 31 cases of voter fraud.
With such a large body of evidence demonstrating the near-nonexistence of voter fraud, the question then is why Republican lawmakers felt that this legislation was necessary. While we cannot delve into the minds of lawmakers to determine their motivations, we can analyze the practical impact of these laws. Statistician Nate Silver reported in his review of various studies that the average result was a decrease in turnout of around 2 percent of registered voters.
Again, two percent is not a large figure, but the size of the figure is not the issue. The issue is that lawmakers are devoting time and money to policies that discourage and prevent some people from voting. These people tend to be poor and uneducated, and are often members of racial minority groups, though Silver points out that the greatest commonality is low education level. While the data does show that those affected tend to skew Democrat, poor rural Republican voters are also impacted.
The actions of the Michigan House are just a part of a larger attempt to impose more restrictions on voting. Many of the states that have passed voter identification laws were previously prevented from doing so by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but in June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the section of the law that required these states to acquire preclearance for any changes to their election laws. In addition to modifying voting laws, the states now have the ability to redraw their congressional districts without oversight, furthering the risk of disenfranchisement for their minority populations.
The path of the United States towards universal suffrage has been long and fraught, requiring numerous regulations and two constitutional amendments to protect the right to vote. It is shameful, then, that many of today’s conservatives have dedicated themselves to rolling back the progress that civil rights activists fought to achieve.