September 26, 2006
The House has retreated from its commitment to ensure equal access to the voting booths. It recently passed a photo ID bill that would impose new, substantial and unnecessary barriers, especially to the nation's most vulnerable citizens -- minorities, the elderly, the poor, the disabled and even married women.
The misleadingly named "Federal Election Integrity Act" would require eligible voters to obtain photo identification to participate in a federal election. This barrier would force otherwise eligible voters to jump through bureaucratic hoops before they could vote. They would have to pay fees to obtain a government-issued ID card and underlying documentation (such as a certified copy of one's birth certificate).
Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, many places designed devices to block access to the ballot box. They routinely imposed literacy tests and poll taxes to suppress the electoral opportunities of African-Americans.
Fortunately, just three months ago, the House voted to renew several sections of the Voting Rights Act that were designed to curb new barriers to voter participation from going up.
Yet the same House that recognized the need for continued protection has now erected the new photo ID barrier.
Requiring voters to obtain this costly form of identification to vote in a federal election is a modern-day poll tax.
For instance, one 85-year-old African-American woman, who moved from Tennessee to another state, was unable to obtain a copy of her birth certificate as proof of citizenship because she, like many African-Americans of her generation, was born at home and did not have a record of her birth.
Despite her effort to prove her identity by providing her Medicaid and Social Security card, her home state would not issue a copy of her birth certificate because officials said they could not find a record of her birth. Until then, she had participated in every election since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Under the proposed bill, this voter, and many others like her, would be turned away from the polls on Election Day.
With more than 60 percent of African-American voters over the age of 60, the photo identification requirement could have a chilling effect on the strongest voting bloc in the African-American community -- the elderly.
Many women whose identity documents may reflect either maiden or married names could face hurdles, too.
Proponents of the bill attempt to hide behind claims of voter fraud. But evidence of voter fraud is anecdotal and not substantial. What's more, state laws already have measures in place that guard against illegal voting.
The bill is undemocratic and elevates an administrative requirement above a constitutionally protected right -- reinforced by the Voting Rights Act.
It is now in the hands of the Senate to prevent the disfranchisement of these eligible voters.
Jenigh Garrett is assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.