Monday, March 09, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Barriers to voting

There is a theory that voting should be hard enough to prevent too many undesirable and unworthy people — the poor, minorities, the aged and the disabled, for example — from contaminating the democratic process. We always thought that inclusion served a democracy better.

Two Arkansas legislators, Reps. Bryan King of Green Forest and Dan Greenberg of Little Rock, introduced a bill this week requiring people to show a government-issued photo identification — a passport or driver’s license typically — before they are allowed to vote. That has been useful in holding down minority voting in a few places like Indiana. A photo-identification requirement is supposed to be a discouraging barrier for disadvantaged people, who tend to vote for Democrats, so Republicans are pushing the legislation across the country.

The lawmakers do not say that they are trying to discourage voting but rather that they want to maintain election integrity by stopping people from going to the polls and casting a vote in the name of a registered voter who is not likely to vote that day. They want to be sure that when Joe Smith casts his vote he is actually Joe Smith and not someone pretending to be Joe Smith. That is a solution looking for a problem. There is no recent history or even suspicion of that fraud occurring in Arkansas. Such voting fraud as we have is committed by election officials, not by individual voters, and the photo requirement would not deter election thieves. If there are people registered to vote who are not legally qualified to vote, a photo ID would not prevent them from voting.

Greenberg and King would not absolutely bar people from voting if they do not have a photo ID. No, a voter could cast a provisional ballot if he or she misplaced the ID that day, and the vote would be counted if the voter returned to the county courthouse by the following Monday with the driver’s license or passport in hand. People who did not possess a photo ID could sign a sworn affidavit stating that they have religious objections to being photographed or else that they are just too poor to pay for a driver’s license or a passport. If they were residents of a nursing home and did not have a driver’s license they could go to the polls and produce verifiable proof to election officials of their residency in a nursing home, whatever that would be.

You could still vote, in other words, if you were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to do it. If you want to participate in the democracy that badly, they would let you do it.

But voting should not be hard, or at least any harder for some than for anybody else. We have moved throughout history toward knocking down barriers to voting, not erecting them. You no longer have to own land to vote, you do not have to meet literacy standards erected by election officials, you do not have to pay a poll tax, and you do not have to be white, which was a requirement to vote in Democratic primaries in the South until the 1940s. Greenberg and King would restore something akin to the poll tax, though even more burdensome, for people for whom voting is already hard enough.

Their legislation would do nothing to ensure honest elections, but by omitting people who have no need for a driver’s license or passport it would ensure a less representative popular will. No one has produced any evidence that people who vote in spite of their difficulties vote any less wisely. The House of Representatives, we assume, will thwart this nonsense.