The Trouble with Voter ID Laws

The Trouble with Voter ID Laws

As Election Day draws near, one of the most hotly contested battles isn’t just over the economy or foreign policy; it’s over the fundamental right to vote itself. This year we have seen an upsurge in voting-related laws being proposed and passed. As is too often the case, these new laws disproportionately work against people of color, as well as low-income populations.

Christians have a legacy of electing leaders, and we have a responsibility to protect this right for all our sisters and brothers. The early church decided that it would be good for them to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn responsibility over to them” (Acts 6:3). Indeed, we are to “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). When we exercise the right to vote, we participate in a history passed down to us from both our political and spiritual forebears.

But this year, new laws seek to selectively impair voting capacity of a subset of the population by reducing polling hours and by requiring photo IDs. Some estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania, for instance, 9 percent of registered voters do not own a driver’s license and that nationwide these percentages could add up to approximately 22 million otherwise legally eligible voters being disenfranchised at the polls this year. Yet there have only been ten instances of in-person voter fraud in the nation since the year 2000. Ten.

What’s Wrong with Showing an ID?

One may wonder why obtaining a simple driver’s license is such a big deal. Doesn’t everybody need one anyway? But as it is less common to drive in urban settings, these populations are less likely to need driver’s licenses. And car ownership itself is a privilege of economic status that many of us in the middle-class strata take for granted. In fact, most other interactions that require a driver’s license are also habits of privilege (cashing a check, making purchase returns, renting a car, boarding a flight). Alternative forms of photo ID (like passports, government IDs, and college IDs) are also upper-middle-class documents.

It’s true that some types of non-driver’s-license photo ID are available for free, but they often require documentation like birth certificates and Social Security cards that can cost a significant amount of time and/or money to obtain. A simple task that is supposedly a right of citizenship quickly becomes a multi-day bureaucratic saga that requires energy and time away from work, often when one can’t afford either.

Those that use public transportation are especially burdened when original documentation, photo ID, registration, and actual voting all happen in different locations with restricted hours of operation. And in the meantime, local taxes that fund such public services are voted down by those least likely to need those services.

Homelessness makes the situation all the more difficult. It becomes almost impossible to establish residency, provide a mailing address, or show proof of identification. Yet a mailing address is often necessary to receive voter ID cards that individuals have to show on Election Day (regardless of photo ID requirements). All the while, those with the privilege of ease of access to voting can influence policies on housing, welfare, and social services, to the exclusion of those whom the policies actually affect.

Injecting Race Into the Race

In addition, these issues are conflated with race. Nationally, more than one million black residents and half-million Latinos live more than 10 miles away from locations issuing valid photo IDs. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, driver’s license offices “that are open more than twice a week are located largely away from rural black populations.”

Legislation has also targeted such options as early voting for individuals who aren’t able to make it to their polling places on Election Day. In the process of overturning these laws, some compelling stories have come to light (this court case in particular), but often at the expense of privacy and dignity. Ohio State Representative Alicia Reese notes, “Citizens have come up to me asking why, as a voter, have I been called lazy? Why, as a voter, have I been called a criminal because I want to go vote? As a voter, why are they making it more difficult because I work two shifts and I want to get to the board of elections to vote but I don’t want to lose my job in the process? Why in Ohio is the vote under attack?”

What is more, the proponents of these laws seem to be well aware of the laws’ nuanced and biased consequences, allowing the swirl of myths and fear mongering from a select few to confuse their motives. Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai exclaimed that the new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”

In a recent case regarding their voter ID law, the state of Texas argued that “poverty is not a protected classification under the Constitution,” and if “minority voters are disproportionately indigent,” they are nevertheless not being racially discriminated against. But a lack of intent to discriminate does not ensure a lack of discrimination. Indeed, a national survey demonstrated a correlation between those supporting Voter ID laws and those harboring negative attitudes toward people of color, which wasn’t simply explained by party affiliation.

It’s important to note that many proponents of voter ID laws are not intentionally trying to be discriminatory on the basis of class or race. But when we view the world from only one perspective, we tend to forget that the prevailing system favors the privileged in our country. Those that support voter ID laws are often the same folks who equate poverty with laziness, and blackness with criminal behavior, without ever digging into a deeper understanding of the subtle, often subconscious biases that we all maintain.

Troubling Consequences

It is ironic that as we send troops overseas to “defend freedom and democracy” abroad, we create ways to hinder our own democratic process at home. Shouldn’t we laud an increase in voter turnout rather than trying to suppress it? Shouldn’t we want more citizens to become engaged in electoral proceedings, not fewer? How does decreased participation enhance the democratic process?

Perhaps there is a fear that by allowing more voting opportunities the “wrong” policies will be enacted. But if one’s policies are good and righteous, won’t they appeal to the majority of voters? We must remember that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

If voter ID laws were purely about preventing voter fraud, the entire country would benefit from this added security. But if one political party makes gains from voter suppression, what does it say about that party’s platform? Clearly not that it is formed with the benefit all citizens in mind.

What does it say if one has to silence the voice of the people in order to win a seat in government? Could this be a sign that one’s policies are no longer benefiting the majority of one’s constituents? In some cases, I think it might. But rather than adjust their policies or “sell” voters on their positions, some politicians seek to increase the barriers to voting for their opponents.

A Troubled History at the Polls

Discrimination and intimidation at the polls is nothing new. Our country’s voting history is fraught with poll taxes, literacy requirements, racial gerrymandering, and voter intimidation (all of which were legal in our lifetime — or at least our parents’). Indeed, as I describe, many of these injustices are still practiced in one form or another today.

Both modern and historic laws use carefully coded language to allow for legal discrimination, without ever explicitly mentioning race. When poll taxes were legally in use, they often came with a grandfather clause that allowed citizens whose ancestors had voted in the years before the civil war (you know … before the abolition of slavery) to forgo the tax.

The implications for such a legacy are profound. Years of disenfranchisement leads to a foundation of legal precedent and accumulated power that perpetuate disparity and injustice. It’s no coincidence that that the Senate is still 96 percent white. As Christians, we know God says to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13), but some groups are still embarrassingly absent from our leadership.

What effects might this disparity have on controversial or racially veiled legislation moving forward? Even assuming no intentional prejudice, surely we can’t presume that homogeneous legislatures have full understanding of the needs of their constituents of color.

The Truth About Voter Fraud

As Christian voters we have an obligation to “discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). It’s true that there are cases in which voter fraud has been a problem, but these cases most often occur in the context of absentee voting, a scenario that is not at all helped by the requirement of a photo ID at the polls.

While some of the new legislation has been struck down, others remain up for debate and it’s important to inform ourselves about the effects of the legislation. If you haven’t registered for this year’s election, do so. And educate yourself about the ID requirements in your state. If you’re already registered and ready to go, help some who aren’t in that same position. On Election Day, join with other believers to unite around the communion table as a way of practicing our common bond in Christ amid our theological, political, and denominational differences. And on that day, consider giving of your time to make sure every citizen can cast a vote safely and legally.

What do you think of voter ID laws? Share your view in the comments section below.

What the Democrats Won’t Tell You

What the Democrats Won’t Tell You

NO LOOKING BACK: Democratic delegates and supporters waved “Forward” placards at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 4, the first day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Robyn Beck/Newscom)

The contrast in diversity was striking on the screen.

The sea of red, yellow, white, black, and brown faces at the Democratic convention in Charlotte last night compared to the sea of white with black and brown specks at the Republican event last week in Tampa. It’s like watching color TV vs. black and white.

But is it really?

Nowadays we talk about red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) as code for conservative and liberal, but as the Democrats take their turn this week and re-nominate the first African American POTUS, I wonder how many black Democrats know their party’s history is much redder than the GOP when it comes to black people and other minorities. In fact, the DNC’s founding fathers would be red with rage that Barack Obama is the party’s leader.

You certainly wouldn’t know this by viewing the DNC’s website on your computer. The opening paragraph of the African American section reads:

“For decades, Democrats have stood with the African American community in the struggle for equality and the enduring struggle to perfect our nation itself.”

Really?

The section about the party’s history reeks with campaign spin:

“For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. We are the party of Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, FDR, and the countless everyday Americans who work each day to build a more perfect union.”

This is followed by a timeline with the entry being 1920.

C’mon now. Your official founding date is 1792, making the Democrats the nation’s oldest political party, yet your timeline begins in 1920? Is it because you are also the party of President Andrew Jackson that promoted the bloody takeover of Indian lands and the expansion of slavery? Is it because you are the party of President Andrew Johnson, the Confederate who during Reconstruction championed laws leading to Jim Crow that re-shackled black freedom for decades after the Civil War?

I was reared in a Democratic household in Brooklyn, New York, to parents who were union loyalists. My initial DNC history reached only as far as FDR and the New Deal. But as I came of voting age I sought the backstory for myself. In a word, it is racist.

The party of Obama had for centuries championed a laundry list of oppressive policies that have led to the tragic disparities and the areas of health, wealth, education, housing, and incarceration rates that continue to plague the African American community today. However, that revelation then didn’t stop me from voting my interest such as, helping David Dinkins to become New York’s first black mayor in 1990.

The truth before 1920 and after is easily accessible via several legit Web sites. Of course Republicans pointed this out themselves in 2008, no doubt as a way of throwing stones at then-Sen. Obama’s magical run for the White House.

What’s curious is why the DNC doesn’t openly embrace its full history — that the party that once championed slavery has produced the nation’s first African American president. Wouldn’t that show how far the party has led nation, though there’s still a ways to go? Wouldn’t that illustrate “change we can believe in,” and progress “forward?” Wouldn’t that show respect for blacks, a constituency that is supposed to be highly valued?  DNC leadership obviously decided on the history revision. Where are the black Democratic leaders on this? Where are the whites who are supposed to be progressive?

For me, it shows that both parties share a common problematic history on the issue of race. One doesn’t want to hear about it, while the other doesn’t want to talk about it. This hasn’t changed much over the years. People have just switched sides and traded names.

Real change would be seeing a sea of colorful faces at both conventions, and two parties focused on meaningful policies rather than spin. I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, though.

But then again, I said the same about a black man becoming President of the United States.

The GOP’s ‘Black’ Problem

The GOP’s ‘Black’ Problem

WELCOME TO TAMPA: Some 200 protesters braved inclement weather from Tropical Storm Isaac today to rally against the presence of the GOP convention in Tampa, Florida. Protesters cried out against Republican policies on immigration, health care, and the economy. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/Newscom)

News that a Republican candidate is getting a low percentage of the black vote typically draws a yawn.

But prominent black Republicans, such as Romney-Ryan adviser Tara Wall, likely gasped at the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that suggests the ticket is currently getting zero percent of the black vote. How do you get zero percent with all those #BlackConservativeForMittRomney tags on Twitter?

Truthfully, the poll’s results aren’t literal, being within the 3.1 percent margin of error. But there’s a link between the poll and Romney’s actions that should cause black Republicans like Wall to do some soul-searching.

Since May, Wall has been Romney’s senior communications adviser emphasizing African American outreach (UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller spoke to her back in June). Wall held a similar role with President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign where he gained 11 percent of the black vote. She’s among a group of black advisers who have been schooling (apparently not well) Romney on what black voters need to hear from him. They don’t expect to outpoint the nation’s first African American president, but want Romney to at least hold on to the 4 percent of the black vote that McCain received in his 2008 loss to Obama.

I interviewed Wall last week on my radio show and her comments about the poll were predictable: You can make numbers say anything you want. Obviously, black Republicans weren’t among those polled. Excitement for President Obama has dipped as people continue to struggle economically. Efforts to appeal to black voters are gearing up (at this writing there was no section on Romney’s website under the “communities” geared specifically towards black or Hispanic voters).

However, I was struck by Wall’s response concerning the GOP’s elephant in the room — its race-baiting tactics.

It’s often said that blacks, particularly black Christians, are as socially conservative (pro-life, pro traditional marriage) as the Republican platform claims to be.  So why aren’t black voters aligned with Republicans over Democrats? The GOP’s racist bent is what keeps black voters at bay. Wall objected passionately.

“That’s false. I reject that notion,” she said. “… Racism comes in many forms. I think that is a discussion in a broader context that we as a community have to have on an ongoing basis. But to simply blanketly [sic] say that Republicans don’t speak out and are racist, I think that’s patently false. There are racist elements in society everywhere and in every party and in every place.”

TOUGH TASK AHEAD: Tara Wall is charged with shaping the Romney campaign’s communication strategy — including its message to the black community, which is presently showing no love for Mitt.

That last sentence is certainly true. Democrats play race games as well and President Obama has been tepid on addressing racism. However, it’s well documented that much of today’s Republican base is of the Dixiecrat tradition — anti-big government, pro-state’s rights, segregationists. In response to Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson signing civil rights legislation in the 1960s (Northern moderate Republicans urged him to), Southern conservative democrats began fleeing to the GOP. They were lured by the GOP’s “Southern strategy” during the Goldwater and Nixon years. To compete with Democratic gains, the GOP saw white southerners as fertile ground for new voters. Understanding the buttons to push, they stirred fears of big government and black people to win them over. No deep ideological motive, just money + votes = power.

Blue states turned red. The party of Abraham Lincoln took on the spirit of Andrew Johnson. Blacks fled the GOP. The legacy continues today.

Wall and other black Republicans know this history well. She has been among those critical of the GOP’s alienating minorities, especially in light of America’s “browning” as Hispanic populations grow. She has even produced a documentary about this titled, Souled Out that has apparently been tucked away for the moment.

As an independent who votes his interests, I admire black conservatives who are truly sincere in their beliefs to diversify the GOP. Think about it. If Romney beats Obama, who would be at the table of influence in the West Wing fighting for black issues? We need advocates in both political parties. Besides, there are sellouts on both sides who dine and grow fat as the masses of black people suffer from high unemployment, health disparities, incarceration rates, and wealth gaps.

The gentleman in me held my tongue from lashing out at Wall about the race baiting. I didn’t have to. The following day her boss, during a campaign stump in Michigan where he and his wife, Ann, were born, pulled a line from the Southern strategy playbook. Before an overwhelmingly white audience, Romney quipped: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”

It was an obvious wink to the birthers who believe Obama is un-American, unqualified, and should go back to Africa.

Sound familiar?

Yawn.

Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.

The Next Political Awakening

The Next Political Awakening

It’s no secret that the American public is less than pleased with the performance of its national political leaders. As Republicans and Democrats once again threaten to shut down the federal government over budget disagreements, more Americans are becoming fed up. Anecdotes of anger and distrust have been repeated at length from the mouths of journalists across the country. A recent CNN poll joins a string of others that reflect America’s growing uneasiness with the White House and Congress. The findings of these polls are no surprise to those struggling to make financial ends meet, pay for college, or find a decent job.

Only 15 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is managing the economy. Only about 40 percent approve of the job President Obama is doing in leading our country. It’s safe to say Washington politicians don’t possess a good reputation these days.

Common sense, which seems to be increasingly less common, will tell you that reputation is important. Even the reputation of non-breathing entities, like companies, can be broken by a loss of confidence or a reputation for dishonesty (Enron, anyone?). Common sense would also suggest that Congress and the president should begin listening very closely to the desires of those who voted for them.

If the 2008 Obama campaign helped inspire a new movement of young and engaged voters, and the Obama presidency helped stoke the emergence of the fiery Tea Party, then the current economic crisis seems to be fostering a new scrutiny from voters who are demanding less partisan dogmatism and more practical results from Washington. This is the reason why, for instance, President Obama cranked out his ambitious proposal for a new jobs bill and immediately hopped on a bus to tout its benefits to voters across Middle America.

While the Middle East is continuing to wrestle with the negative and positive repercussions of the “Arab Spring,” America is undergoing its own kind of political uprising. The fallout of the debt-ceiling debate, high unemployment, and the global economic breakdown is causing a sharp awareness of just how important politics is to our everyday life. On the swift wings of social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, more Americans are reaching out and connecting with others who share their struggles and their convictions.

Many Americans are beginning to take a long, hard look at what their political parties stand for and are for the first time truly recognizing what lies behind the banners of donkeys and elephants. They are beginning to debate and school themselves on federal programs and legislation that were formerly relegated to Political Science 101 term papers.

Social Security, unemployment benefits, health care, class structure, welfare, immigration reform, tax cuts, abortion, and gay marriage are but a few issues that are forcing Americans, in the wake of Congress’ total disassociation with the public consciousness, to reevaluate what it means to exercise their political voice.

This renewed “awakening” has consequences for those in Washington and those unhappy with it. For some it means kissing reelection goodbye, for others it means confronting personal biases against their fellow Americans to forge common bonds and promote positive changes in their communities.

It means recognizing the true political beliefs of our neighbors and ourselves — beyond the Red State/Blue State trope. It means daring to talk about the deep divides in worldview that may exist inside and outside of party lines. It means rejecting some popular philosophies and embracing others.

It means taking time to read, watch, and listen.

It means talking, debating, and at times arguing.

For Christians it means being more focused and intentional in our prayers.

It also means a yearning for real answers to our problems.

The growing frustration in America, fueled by Washington’s legislative intransigence, is driving a political awakening that is something new for many Americans. It is a painfully personal coming-to-terms with where one stands as an American, regardless of party affiliation. It is a willingness to make tough decisions about the future, and to make short-term sacrifices for the nation’s long-term wellbeing.

It is an awakening driven by the harsh, inescapable realities of our new economic environment.

Our political leaders would do well to turn their eyes and ears toward an American populace more poignantly aware than ever of its political interests and influence.

The members of Congress may be demonstrating that they have lost their will to seek practical solutions, but those that elected them certainly have not.