John Whitehead's Commentary
Voter ID Laws: Silencing the American People
“There has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today. Why should we disenfranchise people forever once they’ve paid their price?”—Bill Clinton
Despite the propaganda being advanced by the government, the purpose of voter ID laws is not to eliminate voter fraud and protect the integrity of elections. Rather, their aim is to silence and suppress as many American voters as possible and increase the already widening chasm between the electorate and our government representatives. In fact, voter ID laws are the icing on the cake when it comes to public officials shutting Americans out of the decision-making process, silencing dissent, and making sure that those in power stay in power and have the last word on government policy. In other words, voter ID laws are the final step in securing the American corporate oligarchy, the unchallenged rule by the privileged and few.
Voter ID laws which have swept the nation since 2011 effectively erode our system of representative government by blocking access to the seats of power by those who need it most: the young, the old, women and minorities. For example, Viviette Applewhite, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, has cast a ballot in almost every presidential election since she first voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960. However, as a result of Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law, which requires voters to present a photo ID to election officials on Election Day, this may be the first year the 93-year-old is not able to vote because she, like many others, does not have access to the required legal documents necessary in order to acquire a photo ID.
This is not the first time in American history such tactics have been used to suppress the populace. For example, the South after Reconstruction was a textbook example of voter suppression, from poll taxes to grandfather clauses. At the same time in the North, immigrant voters were being suppressed via literacy tests. These were not formal barriers which said “no blacks” or “no immigrants” may vote, but requirements which while ostensibly aimed at preserving the integrity of elections were in reality meant to silence average Americans, much like today’s voter ID laws. During that same time period, the state of New Jersey, which had for 17 years allowed women to vote, pulled the plug on women’s suffrage. In contrast, as Judith Browne-Dianis of the Advancement Project noted, today’s voter ID laws are “the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century.”
The Philadelphia Delegation of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently issued a Voter Identification Education Guide in order to help voters navigate the state’s new voter ID requirements. Incredibly, at 112 pages, the guide may prove to be more off-putting than helpful to those already intimidated by the bureaucratic hoops that must be leaped through in order to access the ballot box come November. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 25% of blacks, 15% of people earning less than $35,000 a year, and 18% of young voters do not have government-issued photo IDs. The Brennan Center also notes that only 48% of women have access to birth certificates with their current legal name and only 66% have proof of citizenship with their current legal name, making it difficult for them to acquire the ID required for voting.
Twenty-four laws or executive orders restricting access to the ballot have passed in 17 states since the beginning of 2011 and 74 more such bills are pending. By November 2012, there will be at least 30 states that will require identification to be shown at the polls. This requirement will disenfranchise up to 11% of eligible voters in America, and will have an even larger impact on groups that have traditionally faced discrimination at the polls.
Thus far, voter ID laws have passed or are on their way to passage in Alabama, Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Rhode Island. However, in March 2012, the Justice Department blocked the laws in Texas and South Carolina that would disproportionately hurt minority voters. The concern in Texas arose over its disproportionate impact on Hispanic voters and a lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud. Insisting that Mississippi’s voter ID law will violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Mississippi NAACP has asked the Justice Department to block its state’s voter ID law, as well.
Surprisingly, there is an overwhelming lack of evidence that voter fraud—the official justification for these laws—is occurring on a mass scale. For example, Florida has only seen 31 potential cases of voter fraud in the past three years, only three of which resulted in arrests. Between 2002 and 2007, the Justice Department conducted an investigation in order to rout out potential voter fraud. During that time period, there were 300 million votes cast, but only 86 successful convictions under anti-voter fraud laws. Of those 86 convicted, many were simply ex-felons and immigrants unaware that they were unable to vote.
Then there are the innocent victims. Take, for example, Kimberly Prude of Wisconsin who did not realize that she was not allowed to vote while on probation for cashing a counterfeit check. Once she realized her mistake, she went to election officials to rescind her vote. The reward for her honesty was being sentenced to over a year in prison. Usman Ali of Florida, a Pakistani immigrant who owned a jewelry store and, for all intents and purposes, embodied the American dream, had lived in America as a legal resident for ten years with his family. During a visit to his local DMV to renew his driver’s license, Ali was handed a stack of forms to fill out, including a voter registration form. Ali completed the form, not realizing that his honest mistake constituted a federal misdemeanor. For his so-called “crime,” Ali was deported back to Pakistan.
Clearly, voter fraud is not the real reason for these laws, so what’s really going on? Once again, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which epitomizes the Corporate State, i.e., the incestuous liaison between mega-corporations and the government, has been working behind the scenes. As The Nation reports, ALEC’s “‘Public Safety and Elections’ task force … has been the prime vehicle for proposing and advancing what critics describe as voter-suppression and anti-democratic initiatives—not just restrictive Voter ID laws but also plans to limit the ability of citizens to petition for referendums and constitutional changes that favor workers and communities.”
This is corporatocracy in action—what former presidential advisor Bertram Gross referred to as “fascism with a smile.” “Anyone looking for black shirts, mass parties, or men on horseback will miss the telltale clues of creeping fascism,” warned Gross in his 1980 book, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America. “In America, it would be super modern and multi-ethnic—as American as Madison Avenue, executive luncheons, credit cards, and apple pie. It will be fascism with a smile. As a warning against its cosmetic façade, subtle manipulation, and velvet gloves, I call it friendly fascism. What scares me most is its subtle appeal.”
Moreover, as Gross recognizes, “the subversion of constitutional democracy is more likely to occur not through violent and sudden usurpation but rather through the gradual and silent encroachments that would accustom the American people to the destruction of their freedoms.” In fact, the elite utilizes “triplespeak” to keep the public in line, feeding people myth and jargon to divert them from the truth. And, of course, the apathy and naivety, or possibly the cynicism and hopelessness, of the American citizenry contributes to their own oppression.
Let me be clear: This entire debate over voter ID laws isn’t about voter fraud and electoral integrity. Nor is it about Republicans trying to pull a fast one at the polls this year or suppress minority voters, although the facts would suggest otherwise. If these laws appear to favor one party or one segment of the populace over another, that’s just smoke and mirrors—something to keep us distracted and convinced that we have a say in whatever happens on Election Day. Yet when all is said and done, these voter ID laws are just one small piece of a systematic, wide scale effort to ensure that our corrupt, bloated, bilious government populated by self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and corporate yes-men remains exactly as it is—entrenched and unchanging.