The right to vote has always been central to the black civil-rights movement, but the most recent skirmish in this battle is puzzling. On one side are state election officials who want to reduce voter fraud by requiring citizens to produce a government-supplied photo ID before they vote. They say the laws are neither burdensome nor discriminatory because it is almost inconceivable that anybody—white or black, poor or rich—could live in today’s modern economy without some form of official photo identification (it often takes a photo ID to buy alcohol or cigarettes). When voter ID laws have gone to court, judges have generally supported them: In the 6-3 Crawford v. Marion County decision in 2008, the US Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s strict “no-photo, no-vote” law.
On the other side are various “civil rights” groups, especially the NAACP, that claim ID requirements will reduce black and Hispanic turnout. They say this is true even if IDs are free. The NAACP is so adamant that it recently visited the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland for help in resisting voter ID laws (democracies such as Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and the Congo sit on the council). The liberal-leaning Brennan Center supports this argument, suggesting that 11 percent of all eligible voters—especially the poor, the elderly, minorities and the disabled—do not have a photo ID and proof of citizenship because it is too expensive or inconvenient to get them.
Clearly, there is something more here than “civil rights” organizations using the voter ID argument to justify their existence. Let me offer a possible explanation—one unspeakable in public—that explains why something so seemingly innocuous generates such strong feelings.
The NAACP and its allies in the Department of Justice are correct: requiring a government-supplied ID may well reduce black and Hispanic turnout, but the way this modest requirement will do that may not be obvious. No black will stay home on voting day simply because he was unable to get an ID. If that were the only obstacle, “civil rights” organizations would be helping people get the necessary documents, and state agencies would be bending over backwards to make it easy. The situation is more complicated.
For many Americans presenting a fool-proof ID to a government official (and election monitors are government officials at least for the day) runs a serious risk and they therefore refuse to have an ID no matter how convenient or cheap. Here’s why. In today’s age of massive computerized data bases no one knows what might be found in the second or two after the ID is applied for or scanned. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a cheaper, more efficient way to catch fugitives from justice than reading IDs, especially if they contain tamper-proof biogenetic information. As technology improves and data bases become interconnected, the portable ID scanner could become the most potent anti-crime weapon of all.
Law abiding, middle-class folk seldom appreciate how (mainly) poor people become ensnarled in the criminal justice system. We are not talking only of murderers, rapists and other felons. Far more common are offenses like missed child support payments, failure to cover bounced checks, skipping out on rent or utility bills, the fallout from domestic disturbances, defaulting on a loan, failing to appear for a court appearance over a petty drug or gambling arrest, alleged welfare fraud, and unpaid traffic fines. These offences, sometimes called “scrapes with the law,” seldom justify major police work, given their sheer volume and non-violent character. Few police departments can afford to track down and arrest, say, a deadbeat dad and then take up court time to garnish his wages. Many cities are struggling to provide even basic police and fire protection, and increasingly ignore these crimes. Many eventually disappear into rarely accessed files.
But imagine what would happen if the list of all registered voters were collated with the list of all outstanding offenses? The local police would just park the paddy wagons outside the polling stations, boot up their laptops, wait for “hits,” and arrest the miscreants as they exited the polling station. These voters would not know that when their ID was checked it alerted the awaiting police.
It would take only a handful of arrests to discourage untold others from appearing on Election Day. If voting means running the risk of arrest for something perhaps not even remembered, why take the chance? Just stay home.
This is also very rumor friendly—everyone would quickly hear the story of a friend of a friend who went off to perform his civic duty only to be booked for a long-forgotten stack of parking tickets. A paddy wagon or a single police officer near the polling station would discourage anyone worried about some past problem.
In principle, it would be possible to forbid the merging of voting and law enforcement records, but this is easier said than done. Election administration is very localized, and the temptation to use the vote to catch wrong-doers—and keep the practice secret—would be very strong. There might even be pressure from outside groups to use voter lists for this purpose. Just wait until women’s groups found out that voter IDs could be used to catch deadbeat dads or wife beaters.
Thus understood, it is easy to grasp why the NAACP and other groups stress the inconvenience of getting a government-issued photo ID: they can hardly admit that many blacks have unresolved legal problems, and that being forced to get an official ID could expose them to arrest. Even with clean records, many blacks might think there was a risk in voting.
Of course, a reluctance to vote is hardly restricted to blacks—many middle-class whites shun registering to vote to avoid jury duty. Many career criminals supposedly refuse any government ID, including social security cards and drivers’ licenses, so as to remain “invisible.”
Linking voter registration to past misbehavior may be a harbinger to things to come. It is only a matter of time before financially strapped local governments use cheap modern technology and secure biometric IDs to scrutinize all applicants for entitlements. Here too, the upshot will be the discovery of long-forgotten legal problems.
But, while voting is easily foregone to avoid the police, this is not true of food stamps or subsidized housing. The choice may be between benefits or an unwelcome legal encounter. Imagine what would happen when millions learned that registering for benefits with a secure photo ID could bring fines or incarceration? Black leaders would naturally scream “war on the poor,” but local governments may be so desperate to cut costs they would not care.
The result could even be a return to 1960s-style race riots.