Voter ID laws recall Jim Crow-era discrimination

Liza Anderson

In a 2013 decision, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required certain districts and states with a history of civil rights violations to submit any proposed changes to voting laws for federal approval. In the months following this decision, states throughout the nation took this newfound freedom and sought immediately to abuse it.

Texas enacted a particularly controversial piece of legislation requiring one of six government-issued photo IDs to vote. While other states took similar initiatives, and many to a further extent, the Texas case became forced into prominence because of the law’s massive influence. More than 600,000 Texas voters lack the identification necessary to vote under the new law, and this includes a disproportionately large number of minorities.

Voter identification laws such as this represent a bastardization of the democratic process. They further disenfranchise the already marginalized and cling to a mythical problem to justify their bigotry. Despite Trump’s lies about rampant voter fraud, comprehensive investigations into the subject have found negligible results. The Washington Post found that out of one billion votes cast since 2000, there were 31 possible incidences of voter fraud. Lawmakers like the president tout unsubstantiated studies, riddled with sampling errors. Republicans cite the non-existent threat of voter impersonation as a valid reason for disenfranchising millions of Americans.

However, such blatant distortions of justice are not likely to be remediated by the Trump Justice Department, and the responsibility for upholding the most fundamental American right is likely to be neglected.

Legislation regarding voting is considered unconstitutional, via the Voting Rights Act, if it has the effect of discriminating against a certain group. The Texas law, Senate Bill 14, directly disenfranchises minorities and poor whites, all of whom tend to vote for democratic candidates. In Texas, eligible Hispanic voters are 242 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white voters to lack the identification needed for voting under this law, and eligible black voters are 179 percent more likely. This should be sufficient evidence of discriminatory effect. However, many lawmakers have claimed that the intent behind the law is not to discriminate but to protect the sanctity of our elections.

Debbie Riddle, a former member of the Texas House and a key proponent of Senate Bill 14, encapsulated the argument for voter identification when she said that “the very freedom of our nation is based on the integrity of our ballot box.” This would be a valid argument for protecting the voting franchise if there were any perceived threat to the integrity of our elections. But there isn’t.

Every judge that has reviewed the Texas law so far has deemed it unconstitutional, and yet it is still in effect. Our Justice Department is currently being led by a man who referred to the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive,” and the Department has already withdrawn its claim that SB 14 is discriminatory. In lieu of a definitive Supreme Court ruling, this issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, responsible for arguing in support of Senate Bill 14 in various courts, has stated that, “government entities currently require photo identification at public libraries, to receive a passport … Voting, one of the most important of our democratic processes, should be no different.” Except it is. Voting isn’t one of our most important democratic processes; it is our most important. And, unlike checking out a library book or getting a passport, it is protected by our Constitution as a fundamental right.

America has a complicated history of voting rights and voter suppression. Republican lawmakers’ incessant declarations that voter fraud mandates strict legislation of the vote is thinly-veiled political maneuvering, and it has direct consequences on the lives of constituents. Harkening back to the days of Jim Crow, these laws directly seek to suppress the voting franchise of minorities. The Trump Justice Department has no interest in fixing this problem, and state legislatures overwhelmingly support these measures. We as citizens must stand up for our right to vote, and for the rights of minorities to vote, and we must be vigilant about such blatant contortions of the constitution.

Anderson is a Plan II and history freshman from Houston. Follow her on Twitter at @lizabeen.