We could vote for this

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Esther Cepeda
Sunday, January 8, 2012
— The thing that interested me most about the Iowa caucuses was the fact that 122,255 Republican ballots were cast without the voters having to produce a photo ID.

The Iowa Republican Party neglected to play by the stringent voter fraud-curbing rules that the GOP is pushing in states across the country. Some have wondered whether this merely reflected the Republican Party’s perception that because Iowa isn’t racially diverse—read: filled with minority voters considered a Democratic lock—there was no need to fear the kind of “voter fraud” that’s been troubling conservatives for the last few years.

Naw, they just haven’t gotten there yet.

Iowa too is trying for a photo ID law, and on caucus day, Matt Schultz, the Republican secretary of state, was lamenting to MSNBC that because it wasn’t an official primary, neither he nor the Legislature had any say in whether caucus-goers had to show a photo ID.

“You know, if I had it my way, everybody would show an ID,” Schultz said. “You have to show an ID before you go on an airplane, opening a checking account and to buy a beer. So, why not when you vote?”

This is the oft-cited argument of those who believe photo ID laws are a sane precaution against fraudulent voting. The typical rebuttal is that there must be a voter suppression agenda at play because proven cases of such fraud are few and far between.

Can’t we all just be adults and agree that it’s vital to our democracy to avoid people casting ballots they shouldn’t and to make it easier for all eligible voters to do their civic duty?

In a rational environment, this could turn into a perfect bipartisan effort to guarantee that all votes cast are valid without blunting either party’s Election Day turnout. Republicans—who are hammered for caring only about the wealthy—could especially take advantage of the chance to push their vision of American opportunity by vowing to do everything possible to ensure that poll barriers are eliminated for the estimated 21 million voting-age citizens who don’t have a government-issued photo ID.

How about doing robust outreach to educate potentially affected voters on new requirements requiring an ID? Or investing in programs that help them gather and pay for the documents and the transportation needed to get them?

If this sounds too pie-in-the-sky, fighting to adequately fund relevant state agencies such as a Department of Motor Vehicles so they can offer more evening and weekend hours for people to obtain IDs or working with universities to bring uniformity to their student identification procedures might be reasonable starts.

It’s not like any of the get-out-the-vote organizations I’ve spoken to want to wait until voter fraud is rampant for precautions to be put into place. But with photo ID laws continuing to spread—the Brennan Center for Justice estimates that in addition to the 10 states that now require a photo ID to vote, at least 34 others have introduced or are expected to continue pushing similar legislation—they’re now facing the reality of having to get people ID’d in addition to getting them registered.

“If we’re going to require proof of identification, we have to make sure we’re not disenfranchising people,” Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, told me. “There is still that specific segment of lower-income and young people who don’t have ID, they’re not driving because they don’t have a car, they take the bus. We’re carpooling and busing people to the DMV because transportation is in fact a burden many people don’t take into account when considering these laws.”

Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told me she’s heard of only one state —Tennessee—that is attempting to use its public transportation programs to assist people in getting their IDs. She suggested policymakers analyze Georgia, where specific programs to get free IDs into the hands of eligible voters have gotten mixed reviews.

“Studies have shown there is tremendous support for photo IDs if you are going to have an affirmative requirement to ensure rights aren’t compromised,” Johnson-Blanco told me. “But there needs to really be a comprehensive look at the effects of the laws being passed so we don’t keep people from casting ballots because they don’t have or can’t afford the documents they need.”

Democratic and Republican leaders need to get past their simplistic voter fraud versus voter disenfranchisement arguments and pledge to figure out how to avoid both.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 7:35 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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