Insofar as it is a case at all, and not merely a political cudgel, the brief against voter ID is simple. Minorities and the poor, advocates charge, disproportionately lack government-issued identification documents, and, as a result of the allegedly arduous process that is required to obtain them, they may struggle in perpetuity to remedy this. In consequence, laws that make presentation of ID the price of exercising a fundamental right are unacceptable — disenfranchising the marginalized, removing their voices from the public square, and imposing obstacles to their equal enjoyment of constitutional protections. Given America’s difficult record on such issues, this is a potent indictment, and one that both sides ought to take a little more seriously than they do.
Although in practice it is wildly overstated and tends to descend rather quickly into hysteria, I should say that I have some sympathy with at least two facets of this argument. First, as someone who has had to acquire from scratch the various imperatives of modern life in America — a driver’s license, a Social Security number, a bank account, and so forth — I am keenly aware that obtaining endorsements can be a bureaucratic and painful process and one that should not be too quickly played down. Activists wantonly exaggerate the number of Americans who cannot find the requisite documentation to get hold of an ID card, yes. But there are undoubtedly some, and even if they are very few, as a rule we tend not to judge the violation of rights by number alone.
Second, it seems clear that voting should be held to a much higher standard of scrutiny than are most other activities. Conservatives correctly point out that citizens struggle to do much at all in modern America without credentials — after all, one needs to show proof of identity to buy drugs, to buy alcohol, to board an airplane, to walk into a television studio, and, sometimes, simply to use a credit card. Nevertheless, this isn’t quite the knockout point that its purveyors think it is. The fact is, one has no right to a credit card or to a driver’s license, and nor does the Constitution say much on the use of air travel or television studios. Leaving aside the thorny legal question of whether Americans literally enjoy a constitutional right to democracy, I would posit that it seems reasonably obvious that the polity cherishes voting and holds it to be among the country’s essential virtues, and that obstacles that are erected in front of it are therefore much more deeply problematic than usual. So, I’ll grant two cheers for the dissidents, at least.
Nevertheless, strong as these arguments are, they are typically deployed by their champions with a quite appalling inconsistency. Why, I wonder, are voter ID’s recusants so deafeningly silent when it comes to the stumbling blocks that are constructed in front of other constitutional rights, including ones that are literally and explicitly enumerated? As the Supreme Court has now rightly confirmed, the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, and, however the future jurisprudence fills in the blanks and defines the scope of that right, it remains immutably, unassailably, incontrovertibly true that all law-abiding Americans enjoy the right to buy and to own firearms and, by extension, that governments at every level are prohibited from restricting that right. And yet they damn well do, all the time, and to nary a squeak from the anti-voter-ID crowd. Pray, why?
One would have a lot more sympathy for the discontents if they would demonstrate a little consistency. North Carolina recently passed a measure that, from 2016 onward, requires voters to show identification at the polls. And all hell has broken loose. Despite the state’s government promising that DMVs will provide ID cards at no charge to any resident who can verify his identity, present a Social Security number, and verify his age, opponents are screaming for repeal, charging that the process of proving one’s identity might, for some, be tricky and laborious and could, in some cases, lead to disenfranchisement. The language has been spectacular. The Nation’s Ari Berman has called the rule “the country’s worst voter suppression law”; Attorney General Eric Holder has argued that the measure is “inconsistent with our ideals as a nation”; and the state’s NAACP has issued a press release terming the law “a monster voter suppression bill” that takes the state “backwards over on the things we have won.”
Such fiery reactions have by no means been limited to North Carolina. Speaking more generally about the concept, Representative Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) slammed identification requirements as “a concerted effort to place new obstacles in front of minorities, low-income families, and young people who seek to exercise their right to vote.” His Democratic colleague Senator Ben Cardin (Md.) characterized them as “the new Jim Crow laws of our times,” a theme that Eric Holder has picked up (“poll taxes”), Al Sharpton has echoed (“your water fountain is voter ID”), and Barbara Lee has channeled, too (“turning the clock back to the days of Jim Crow”).
DiversityInc, a “diversity management” firm — whatever that is — goes one step further, suggesting, semiliterately, that
the need for voter IDs in the United States is baseless, has no merit and is extremely cruel in its intent. Just because people do not live their lives like you does not mean that they are less human, less deserving of the rights of all citizens, and without need for each of us to stand firm for all of us to fully participate in the processes that shape this nation.
Fair enough. In which case, perhaps we ought also to take a look at New York City’s gun-permitting process, which not only requires individuals who wish to buy a firearm to go through the apparently devastating process of obtaining an acceptable ID but also to provide separately a proof of residence, a proof of citizenship or permanent residency, and a Social Security card; to pay $431.50 plus the cost of two color photographs; to wait an average of eight months for the application to be processed, and then attend a lengthy in-person interview; and, if the applicant has not lived in the United States for seven years (and many immigrants can become citizens after just three years, remember), to provide a certificate of good conduct from their foreign government. Pray, how does that fit into the mix?