The Battle Over Voter ID Bills
Confusing privileges with a fundamental right
In state after state, Voter ID bills are being passed or proposed. More often than not, Republicans are the ones drafting this legislation and defending the bills, claiming they prevent voter fraud. In addition, Republican politicians have been pushing the idea that voting is a privilege and not a right.
When you go to even a Burger King or a McDonalds and use your debit card, they'll ask you to see your ID [to be] sure it’s you . . . Should we have to do that when we vote, something that is one of the most sacred -- I think it's a privilege, it's not a right. Everybody doesn't get it because if you go to jail or if you commit some heinous crime your rights are taken away. This is a privilege.
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Although Zellers later downplayed this remark, his fellow Republicans continue to make similar comments. The idea that voting is a right is not something new to the right. In fact, Republicans have asserted this view for a long time. Currently, there are 15 states with photo ID bills on the books, and more states are pushing for passage of similar legislation. It should be noted that not all of these laws are in effect, and some states do not require a photo. Furthermore, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) provides an updated list along with details of what is going on with these bills state by state.
Democrats argue that these laws target minorities, the elderly, students and the poor. In late February, Laura Murphy, who is head of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, compared the Voter ID laws to Jim Crow-era laws. She has not been the only public figure to express that sentiment.
Like Zellers, the politicians who are introducing, or defending, these bills are confusing a right with privileges. For instance, some have argued, “you have to have photo ID to drive a car,” or “if you check out a book from the library, you need a photo ID.” But those two examples are about privileges, and voting is not the same thing.
Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, was asked why politicians have this opinion. In an email, she said:
Unfortunately, there are still those who view voting as a privilege rather than the most fundamental right in a democracy. While the U.S. Constitution does not specifically guarantee a general right to vote, that right is implicit in the very existence of the Constitution, as the Judge in Wisconsin pointed out this week. Without a vote, the Constitution could not have been ratified. There are sound reasons to require licenses to drive and there is ample evidence that placing a photo on that license assists businesses in preventing theft and fraud. There is also lots of evidence that theft and fraud in retail establishments occurs. There is no correlation in voting just as there is no constitutional right to use a credit card at a department store or get in a car and drive.
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As mentioned earlier, proponents of these bills insist that they will ensure that voter fraud does not take place. But is that even common? MacNamara countered that claim, saying “There is no evidence that voter impersonation is a problem. The integrity of the system is better protected by increased training for election workers, better recruitment and training of poll workers and modernizing our registration systems.”
This battle is far from over, and continues to be a contested problem as election season intensifies.