Voting Rights – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Categories: Testimony

Location: House Committee on the Judiciary-Minority

Ranking Member Conyers, and Members of the committee: I am Wade Henderson, president & CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony for the record regarding the problem of voter identification laws and other barriers to the ballot.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition charged by its diverse membership to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. Founded in 1950 by A. Philip Randolph, Arnold Aronson, and Roy Wilkins, The Leadership Conference works in support of policies that further the goal of equality under law through legislative advocacy and public education. The Leadership Conference’s more than 200 national organizations represent persons of color, women, children, organized labor, persons with disabilities, the elderly, gays and lesbians, and major religious groups.

The Leadership Conference is committed to building an America that is as good as its ideals – an America that affords everyone access to quality education, housing, health care, collective bargaining rights in the workplace, economic opportunity, and financial security. The right to vote is fundamental to the attainment and preservation of all these rights. It is essential to our democracy. Indeed, it is the language of our democracy.

Thankfully, in securing the right to vote, the days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and brutal physical intimidation are behind us. But today’s efforts at disfranchisement, while more subtle, are no less pernicious.

Recently-erected barriers to the ballot such as photo ID requirements, shortened early voting periods, limits on poll worker assistance, proof of citizenship requirements at the polls, restrictions on same day and third-party registration, and disenfranchisement of former felons are nothing less than an all-out assault on
the progress of the last century—indeed, on the very legacy of the civil and human rights movement.

These barriers, particularly laws requiring voters to show government-issued IDs at the polls to vote, are not the product of independent actions coincidentally occurring throughout the country. Supporters of these requirements spuriously claim IDs are a meaningful tool for fraud prevention. The truth is that they are very much part of a coordinated political effort to disenfranchise millions of Americans – particularly
traditionally disenfranchised groups that saw an increased turnout in the 2008 elections – throughout the country.

In twelve months, Americans will be called to the polls to decide who our next president will be, determining the fate and direction of our country for years to come.  According to a new report released by the Brennan Center for Justice, entitled “Voting Law Changes in 2012,”[1] recent changes in voting laws are poised to disenfranchise more than five million Americans, which could have a significant impact on the upcoming presidential election.  

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope.  In states like Ohio and Maine, citizens turned out and successfully thwarted efforts to disenfranchise many voters. In Ohio, despite attempts to suppress the vote, Issue 2 – a referendum on a law to ban collective bargaining among union workers—was overwhelmingly defeated.  In Maine, voters showed up to
the polls and repealed a new state law that had eliminated Maine’s 38 year-old Election
Day registrations.  These are just two examples of how Americans are fighting back against laws designed to suppress their constitutional right to vote.

A Euphemism for Voter Suppression

Photo ID requirements disproportionately deny voting rights to people of color, people with
disabilities, students, low-income workers, and seniors. A full 11 percent of
voters currently do not have ID, and most of them are seniors, people of color,
people with disabilities, lower-income individuals, and students.[2]
In fact, about 1 out of 5 nonwhite citizens and citizens over 64 years old do
not have government-issued ID.[3]
Political architects are seizing on this fact and attempting to shape the
turnout in future elections by denying these groups access to the ballot.

For those without an ID, the
hurdles to obtaining one can be far greater than most people would think. One
needs the time, access to transportation, access to child care or work leave,
and underlying documentation to obtain an ID. This translates into time and
money that lower-income citizens, people with disabilities, seniors, students, and
people of color are far less likely to have. Long lines at driver services
offices take away from time at work and with family. Reliable transportation
may not be available. Time off of work and money for someone to watch the kids
may be hard to come by.

Further, many may not have
the supporting documents necessary to obtain an ID. To get an ID, one must
present documents showing identity, citizenship and residence, including a
certified birth certificate. In some cases, one must show a Social Security
card, marriage or divorce records, or naturalization papers. This translates
into more time and more money. A copy of a certified birth certificate can cost
$45, and in a bizarre Catch-22, 17 states require a photo ID to get a copy of the birth certificate in
the first place. Naturalization papers can cost up to $200.

In other cases, supporting
documents like a birth certificate may not even exist. Those who were
informally adopted at birth, born in rural settings, born outside of the United
States, or whose records were destroyed in natural disasters like Hurricane
Katrina, may all be disenfranchised by new ID requirements.

The experiences of Brenda
Williams and her husband Joseph, physicians in the small town of Sumter, South
Carolina, illustrate the challenges that new ID laws pose. The Sun News recently featured their story.[4]
For the last 29 years, this couple has signed up their patients to vote. They
have collectively registered about 1,000 voters. When the state’s new photo ID
law was enacted, they recall, their task seemed simple enough: collect enough
money to pay for an individual’s ID, and take that person to go get it.

In Brenda’s words, however,
“I was in for the education of my life.”[5]
Documentation proved to be a major barrier to obtaining IDs. Like many of their
rural, lower-income or minority counterparts in the South and elsewhere, many
of the Sumter residents had no birth certificates at all. This is because,
before the 1970s, many women used midwives. Those midwives may have failed to
file birth certificates or filed incomplete or incorrect certificates. This factor
helps explain why more than half of South Carolina voters without an ID are 45
years of age or older.[6]

Struggles in other states
illustrate the barriers that exist even when an individual has documentation
and the ability to get to a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. In
Wisconsin, a mother recorded her son’s interaction with a DMV clerk while
trying to apply for an ID to comport with the new voter ID law.[7]
The son used a bank statement as proof of residency. The untrained clerk
examined the son’s bank account statement and, going beyond even Wisconsin’s
stringent requirements, proceeded to interrogate him about exactly how often he used the account and whether
there was enough activity to allow him to qualify for an ID.  Luckily, the clerk decided the son’s Amazon
purchase allowed him to “qualify” as an active user of his own bank account. A
less persistent individual, however, or one with a less active bank account or
no bank account at all may have been turned down by that clerk on that day and
disenfranchised entirely.

Even when a state promises to
waive fees for ID cards that are used for voting, problems can still occur.
This is because many DMVs like Wisconsin’s also require an applicant to know that the ID is supposed to be free
before they can get it for free. That is, they must locate and check a certain
box on their ID application indicating that they want the ID for voter
identification purposes. Otherwise, they are automatically charged a fee.[8]
This amounts to a poll tax.   

There is also a high risk of
disenfranchisement on voting day. That is, even if a voter has the required ID,
he or she may still be disenfranchised by poorly trained poll workers. Poll
workers have nearly full discretion to determine whether the photo on the ID
actually portrays the potential voter. This allows for arbitrary and
discriminatory enforcement. Dyed hair, weight gain or loss, or simple aging can
all cause someone to look different than the photo on his or her ID.

More importantly, African
Americans and Hispanics are already more
likely to have their IDs more harshly scrutinized at the polls. A Harvard
University study conducted after the 2006 elections revealed that 55 percent of
African Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics were asked for photo ID whether
it was required or not, compared to only 47 percent of whites were asked for
photo ID.[9]

New regressive voting laws
are thus taking communities that have traditionally struggled for ballot access
– and that have fought long and hard for the access they have – and setting
back the clock on their progress.

A Solution in Search of a Problem

Proponents of voter ID laws
claim that voter fraud is commonplace, yet multiple studies have shown that the
problem is essentially nonexistent. And anecdotal evidence held up by proponents
has consistently been debunked.

First, the only type of voter
fraud that a photo ID could address would be voter impersonation – that is, when
voters show up at the polls and pretend to be someone they are not. This kind
of fraud simply does not exist at a significant level anywhere in this country.
“It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he
will impersonate another voter at the polls,” according to a recent report on
voter fraud by the Brennan Center for Justice.[10]
Indeed, another recent analysis of data from all fifty states and the U.S. Department
of Justice found that voter impersonation – again, the only type of fraud that
a photo ID can address – is exceptionally rare.[11]
Only 24 people were convicted or plead guilty to illegal voting at the federal
level between 2002 and 2005.[12]
On the state level, there were 19 cases of voting by ineligible voters.[13]
Of those, five were prohibited because of felony convictions, fourteen were not
citizens, and five voted twice in the same election.[14]
None of them were attempting to
impersonate someone else.

Furthermore, voter fraud, if it existed, is already illegal and punishable by
jail time and fines. Already-existing punishment is why voter impersonation is
so rare. It is simply not worth the risk. 

If these laws truly aimed to
confirm a voter’s identity, they would allow for the many ways that a person
can prove who they are. People would be able to use a broader range of
documents such as expired photo IDs, utility bills, bank statements, or
paychecks. States could also explore less oppressive alternatives. They could
better publicize existing election laws and penalties to promote awareness.
They could more widely post eligibility requirements at the voting polls for
both voters and poll workers. They could start an election hotline like
Georgia’s Stop Voter Fraud hotline. Finally, they could invest in updating voter
registration rolls so that poll workers would have up-to-the-minute data on
voter eligibility. These steps will likely not be taken, though, because most
states know that voter fraud is not the issue.

A
Financially Irresponsible Move

Photo ID requirements are also an unnecessary
financial burden on state and local government. Because charging for the IDs
would be an outright unconstitutional poll tax, states must offer photo IDs to
voters for free. This is costly. For example, in Indiana, the state spent more
than $10 million on more than 700,000 cards in just four years.[15]
And these figures are just the beginning. Related costs like public awareness
campaigns, provisional ballet preparations, and poll worker training all raise
the price tag on these laws. In fact, Missouri recently estimated that it would
cost the state more than $16.9 million in its first three years to implement a
photo ID law.[16]
Local jurisdictions will have extra costs to deal with elections offices,
longer lines, and more complicated procedures to navigate with the new
requirements.

In a time of such financial crisis, there is
simply no rationale to spend millions of dollars on a photo ID requirement. Too
many people are working harder and getting paid less – if they are working at
all. People are frustrated, angry, and wondering just when the pain will end.
States should be investing in resources like education, housing, and job creation
that will further empower and enfranchise their citizens, rather than on
measures that will directly exclude them from participating in civil society.
States will be spending money on enforcing ID laws that will hurt the very
groups that need their protection the most. Not only is this a perverse
reversal of the government’s role in a democracy, it is simply bad budgeting.

Conclusion

Governors who vetoed
corrosive voter ID laws in their states should be commended for their leadership.
Yet many others have fallen prey to the rhetoric—or orchestrated and
perpetuated the rhetoric themselves – in an attempt to disenfranchise thousands
of voters across the country for their own political gain. Rhetoric like that
of Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval that “the right to vote is a privilege” – a
contradiction in terms if I have ever heard one – cannot be tolerated in a
democracy founded on equality.[17]
Explanations from New Hampshire House Speaker that college students are
“foolish” and just “vote their feelings” and so should not be able to cast a
ballot have no place in the 21st Century.[18]
 

It should be the duty of our
policymakers to remove the barriers to participation for all citizens, not to
erect new ones under the guise of political rhetoric. Removing barriers
involves modernizing the voting system with automated registration, online
access to records, and accessible voting machines that would allow more than 65
million eligible Americans to participate
. Investing in a uniform, simplified process for voting would
eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic processes, save states money, and save
election officials time. Right now state legislators are committed to doing the
opposite. Requiring photo ID and imposing other restrictions on the right to
vote will not preserve our democracy. It will only serve to exclude many
Americans from participating in the important decisions that face us all.

Thank you for your leadership
on this critical issue.

 



[1] Brennan Center for
Justice, “Voting Law Changes in 2012” http://www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/voting_law_changes_in_2012/

[2] Advancement
Project, “What’s Wrong With This Picture? New Photo ID Proposals Part of a
National Push to Turn Back the Clock on Voting Rights,” ii, http://www.advancementproject.org/sites/default/files/publications/Picture%20ID6%20low.pdf.

[3] Tova Wang, “Voter Identification Talking Points and
Fact Sheet,” Demos.org, http://www.demos.org/pubs/voterIDtalkingpoints.pdf.

[4] Dawn
Hinshaw, “S.C. husband-and-wife doctor couple at center of voting-rights
movement,” The Sun News, http://www.thesunnews.com/2011/07/18/2283993/sc-husband-and-wife-doctor-couple.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] “Voter ID
at the DMV,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0G01zbHGM8.

[8] Id.

[9] Stephen Ansolabehere, “Effects of Identification
Requirements on Voting: Evidence from the Experiences of Voters on Election
Day,” PS: Political Science & Politics (2009), 42:127-130 Cambridge
University Press, The American Political Science Association 2009.

[10] Justin
Levitt, “The Truth About Voter Fraud,” The Brennan Center for Justice at New
York University School of Law, 4, at http://www.truthaboutfraud.org/pdf/TruthAboutVoterFraud.pdf.

[11] Advancement
Project, “What’s Wrong With This Picture? New Photo ID Proposals Part of a
National Push to Turn Back the Clock on Voting Rights,” 4, http://www.advancementproject.org/sites/default/files/publications/Picture%20ID6%20low.pdf

(citing Lorraine C. Minnite, The Myth of Voter
Fraud
, Cornell Univ. Press (2010), showing that allegations of widespread
voter impersonation fraud at the polls are not supported by empirical evidence).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Advancement
Project, “What’s Wrong With This Picture? New Photo ID Proposals Part of a
National Push to Turn Back the Clock on Voting Rights,” v, http://www.advancementproject.org/sites/default/files/publications/Picture%20ID6%20low.pdf.

[16] Id. at vi.

[17] “Why We
Don’t Need Felony Disenfranchisement Laws Anymore,” Unfinished Business, The
Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, June 20, 2011, http://www.unfinishedbusiness.org/20110620-felony-disenfrancisement/.

[18] Peter
Wallsten, “In states, parties clash over voting laws that would affect college
students, others,” The Washington Post,
March 8, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/06/AR2011030602662.html?hpid=topnews&sid=ST2011030802271