Op-Ed: Showing Up for Racial Justice opposes unnecessary, discriminatory voter ID laws

A voter ID law and other election-related bills put forward by Republican lawmakers pose a major threat to Iowans’ voting rights. Voter ID requirements, restrictions on identification documents, eliminating same-day registration and curtailing early voting opportunities would make it harder for Iowans to cast their ballots. As an organization committed to equal rights and racial justice, IC SURJ opposes these measures, which threaten to revive historical restrictions on the franchise of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

Individuals participate in early, in-person absentee voting at the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City on Oct. 26, 2016. — photo by Zak Neumann

The voter ID bills are an unnecessary, expensive and discriminatory solution to a non-existent problem. Supporters argue that they will prevent voter fraud, especially impersonation fraud or illegal registration. However, there is no evidence that voter fraud of any kind is a problem in our state. As Secretary of State Pate, a Republican, reassured us last October, “Iowa has got one of the cleanest, best election systems in the country.”

Voter ID would simply make it harder for Iowans to vote. At best, requiring poll workers to check each voter’s identity would create longer lines at polling places and discourage busy voters. At worst, proposed limits on acceptable forms of identification would effectively disenfranchise thousands of our fellow citizens.

We are especially concerned that identification requirements would disproportionately limit the voting rights of minorities, the elderly and people with disabilities. In Iowa and nationally, these groups are far less likely to have the specific forms of government-issued ID that would be required. In Iowa, 11 percent of adults and 15 percent of those over age 65 have neither an Iowa driver’s license nor a non-driver ID. The proportion is probably even higher among minority citizens. A quarter of African Americans nationwide do not have a government-issued photo ID.

But even Iowans with acceptable identification could be prevented from voting, since poll workers could also challenge their identity on the basis of their signature. If election officials think a voter’s signature does not match their ID card, the voter will have to cast a provisional ballot and then provide additional proof of identity before it is counted. What would happen to people whose signatures vary or have changed since they signed their ID? Those impaired by injury, physical disability or age? Or illiterate voters? Especially without clear limits on officials’ power to arbitrarily challenge signatures or any training in handwriting analysis.

The potential for abuse is tremendous. Literacy tests have a long history as a means of preventing minorities, especially African Americans, from voting. Signature verification risks reviving this shameful practice.

If voter ID is unnecessary and discriminatory, it would also be financially wasteful. Implementing voter ID would cost our state and counties millions of dollars. This is why the nonpartisan Iowa State Association of County Auditors opposes it.

The proposed legislation also does nothing to help voters with the expense of official documents necessary to obtain required identification. Shifting these costs to voters amounts to an indirect poll tax, a classic tool of race-based voter suppression that has been banned under the 14th and 24th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Limits on same-day registration and early voting would have a similarly chilling effect. Most ominous is the elimination of election-day registration, which would require voters to register a minimum of ten days before an election. A 2016 study by the nonpartisan Government Accounting Office showed that same-day registration significantly increases participation, especially among young people and people who move often. Since Election Day registration was introduced in Iowa in 2007, it has enabled thousands of people to exercise their voting rights. In 2012 alone, over 66,000 Iowans registered and voted on election day, while thousands more registered in the ten days before the election.

Early voting is equally important. Iowa has some of the highest voter participation rates in the country. Satellite early voting stations, in-person early voting at county auditors’ offices, and no-excuse absentee voting by mail help make this possible. Over 70 percent of eligible Iowa voters have voted in every presidential election since 2000, and 40 percent now regularly cast their ballots early or absentee. Research by University of Iowa Political Science Professor Timothy Hagle shows that early voting is especially beneficial to women, the elderly and young voters. It also benefits others, including working people and voters in rural districts, who find it difficult to get time off or get themselves to a polling place on election day.

Iowa’s current electoral laws are excellent. They help ensure that all Iowans are able to exercise their constitutional rights to vote and that we have clean, fair elections. Let’s keep it that way by opposing unnecessary changes that would disproportionately endanger the voting rights of minorities, low-income voters, young people, the elderly, people with disabilities, women and rural voters.

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