By Kevin Kolsto
It might not seem like the most exciting race, but for Johnson County voters, I’m going to say Secretary of State is the most important contest on the ballot.
Democratic candidate Deidre DeJear has called the position she’s running for the “gatekeeper”: The Iowa Secretary of State supervises elections — a big deal in these days of hacking, voter purges and court battles over poll ID laws. Just last year, actually, DeJear’s opponent, Secretary Paul Pate, recommended the voter ID requirement that passed Iowa’s majority Republican legislature and was signed into law by then-governor Branstad.
Sec. Pate’s “soft roll-out” of the law was the start of a panic at the polls for me. For me, voting means making sure a staff is available to leave my supported living home with me, reserving a wheelchair van, loading my wheelchair, unloading it, finding a curb cut-out in an unfamiliar place, then dealing with the bafflement of poll workers who can’t understand how I’ve forgotten to bring my ID. And who often address the person who’s helping me, as if I can’t advocate for myself. When I remind them that the ID isn’t required until 2019, their look says, “Who doesn’t carry their driver’s license with them?” Someone who drives a wheelchair instead of a car, that’s who!
It’s an extra step to vote from home with an absentee ballot, but it’s better than going to the polls at this point. Then again, in October 2016, I missed the deadline for requesting the ballot. And the day of the election, there wasn’t a staff who could take me to the polls. I just sat at home as results came in and my stomach dropped through the floor. November is my last chance to advocate for myself at the voting booth before another barrier flies up in my face.
I have been able to speak out in ways many of my peers haven’t, though. I got to meet both DeJear and Pate this fall at voter education events organized by Seen & Heard, a disability advocacy program I participate in at Systems Unlimited. During DeJear’s visit, she clarified that, if she’s elected, she would not be able to change the voter ID law without congressional approval, but that she hopes to lessen the effects of the law with an intensive voter education campaign born of her long history as a community organizer. She told us she was just going to stay positive. Her goal, simply, is to have as many votes cast as possible. She already had some advice for people relying on the flimsy paper voter ID mailed out to voters who don’t list a driver’s license number when they register: take a picture of the card with a phone and have that ready to show at the polls. Good advice if you have a smartphone, and more practical than anything Secretary Pate suggested. But tough luck, again, for the elderly, the homeless and many of my peers.
Sec. Pate does have a pretty strong record of voter education and in fact was a finalist for a national award for his “Helping Veterans and Iowans with Disabilities Vote” initiative. I’m a Democrat, and was excited to meet DeJear — the first African-American candidate for Secretary of State in Iowa’s history — but Sec. Pate’s push to increase poll accessibility definitely got my approval. When he visited, I came with an open mind and was ready to hear him out. I wanted him to hear me out, too. Maybe he just didn’t realize how much harder the ID rule is on me than it is on an able-bodied person.
But during a Q&A after the event, when a peer mentioned the undue burden this law places on the disabled, Sec. Pate was dismissive. “People on Medicaid,” he said, “tend to have an ID because they have lots of doctor’s appointments.” First of all, you don’t need an ID to go to the doctor. They don’t card you. And second, though many of my peers do have IDs, they’re kept in a medical file or with a guardian. And it’s one more thing to round up. But this flippant remark, which came after Sec. Pate had told us that the voter ID would be great because it would shorten lines at the polling place, undid the hopefulness his accessibility initiative had made me feel. He just didn’t get it. The voter ID limits human error, he said, and streamlines the process. For who? I wanted to ask. And is efficiency at the polls worth people being turned away? He mentioned, finally, and almost as an afterthought, that “some people worry about voter fraud.” I’m betting that lots of “these people” are the diehard voters who carried him into office by the thinnest of margins in 2014, and he wants to please them. But they’re also wrong. When pressed, Sec. Pate told our group he didn’t want to give voter fraud statistics because he didn’t know them off the top of his head. I was sorry he couldn’t give numbers. My own search of a compendium of voter fraud put together by the Heritage Foundation for each U.S. state, however, showed that there were zero examples of fraud by impersonation in Iowa. And the Iowa Supreme Court, in its injunction against parts of Sec. Pate’s law, ruled that “there was no indication fraud had occurred in elections before the new rules,” and that “the threat of … voters being disenfranchised … is real and in a democratic society cannot be allowed.” To me, barriers to voting are barriers to living.
And as Deidre DeJear said to a rapt crowd of people with disabilities, “When one of us is left out, we’re all left out.”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 252.