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.
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?
Indeed, even in states that have looser or nonexistent permitting requirements, federal law nevertheless requires all citizens to show identification and to submit to a background check when they purchase guns from a dealer — thus presuming that they have obtained the very government-sanctioned credentials that we hear are impossible to acquire. This is to say that progressives who rail against similar requirements at the voting booth spend much of the rest of their time doing their level best to expand the use of identification requirements within the Second Amendment’s sphere and attempt to complicate the system of private sales — including between family members. Could we not fairly make the case here, as opponents make the case against voter ID, that these rules are going to limit — unfairly and disproportionately — poor, minority, and immigrant Americans’ access to what is an enumerated and recognized constitutional right? Could one not make the case, further, that this is particularly worrying given that the poor are more likely to be in need of the means of self-protection than are the rich? I rather think that we can. But what do we hear instead, from the eccentrically outraged? We hear that such measures are mere “common sense.” This, I’m afraid, is hypocrisy.
One cannot even claim that the issue of voting is more historically sensitive than is the issue of firearms and therefore a separate question. As anybody who has taken even a cursory look at the topic will know, the history of gun control and the history of racism are, alas, utterly inextricable. From the beginning, attempts to make guns difficult to obtain have been aimed primarily at minorities — a trend that has come to a happy close only in the last 30 or 40 years. The colonies in both Massachusetts and Plymouth prohibited the sale of firearms to Indians prior to the revolution, and, before Louisiana became a territory of the United States, the French instituted “Black Codes” that required colonists not only to deny blacks weapons but actually to beat “any black carrying any potential weapon.” In the antebellum South, state constitutions often reserved to “freemen” the right to bear arms, and, after the Civil War, the Democratic party and its terrorist wing, the KKK, passed and enforced a new set of “Black Codes,” which barred former slaves from owning guns and were so effective in doing so that the initial draft of the Anti-Klan Act of 1871 made it a criminal act to “deprive any citizen of the United States of any arms or weapons he may have in his house or possession for the defense of his person, family, or property.” As late as 1968, the anti-gun historian Robert Sherrill has documented, “gun control” was really another word for “disarming blacks,” and the banning of so-called “junk guns” was really a means by which the sorts of firearms that poor minorities could afford were taken off the market. “The Gun Control Act of 1968,” Sherill notes, “was passed not to control guns to but control blacks, and inasmuch as a majority of Congress did not want to do the former but were ashamed to show that their goal was the latter, the result was that they did neither.”
Now, I am, of course, under no impression that the “common sense” gun legislation of which the Democratic party is so fond is driven by racial animus. Misguided and counterproductive as it is, the gun-control movement does generally believe that it is doing the right thing. Nevertheless, if we are to believe that the arguable consequences of voter ID must be taken to be the intentions of voter ID, then can we not apply the same standard to those who would put obstacles in the way of the purchase of handguns? And if not, why not?
What about health care, for that matter? The notion that health care is “a right” is, of course, philosophically and economically illiterate — and, in America at least, it is legally absurd. Still, the president has taken to telling his audiences that “health insurance isn’t a privilege, it is your right,” and has promised to “keep it that way,” so I suppose one must presume that he believes this to be true. One might ask, then, why he and his defenders are so happy with the identification requirements baked into Obamacare? After all, even if one doesn’t consider the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to be protecting a “right,” it is at least outlining a government service, and the most basic understanding of the principles of equal protection should determine that the state is not allowed to deny people access to services that are rendered in their name. Per HHS, Obamacare requires registrants to have at the minimum a Social Security card, which, in turn, requires proof of both identity and of U.S. citizenship — the very two things that we are informed are beyond the pale when it comes to voting. Has this discrepancy ever been addressed?
The answer, of course, is “No, it hasn’t been addressed.” Why? Well, because the Left does not really have a principled objection to there being obstacles put in front of rights — rather, it dislikes obstacles being put in front of those rights that it happens to like, and it has recognized, too, that this particular case is political dynamite. The genuine and reasonable fear of disenfranchisement to one side, just as the War on Women has proven a useful marketing tool, so painting the other side as being the reincarnation of Bull Connor has become an effective galvanizer of the party’s core electorate and a source of immense self-satisfaction. Why would anybody involved bother to look for inconsistencies?
So, what would a principled stance toward this question look like? For a start it would yield a system in which there were strict rules governing voting, firearms, and government services — or, contrarily, weak rules for all of the above. Next, it would see progressives railing equally against the voter-ID requirements in North Carolina and the firearms-permitting processes in New York City and much of the Northeast, admitting that their talking points about the ease of gun purchases simply aren’t true, and conceding that “Well, I like voting but not guns” is neither a legal nor a moral argument. Likewise, it would see conservatives acknowledging that “Well, you have to show ID at the drugstore!” is no better an argument in support of voting reform than “Well, you have to get a driver’s license!” is a strong argument in favor of gun-permitting, accepting that there are downsides to all reforms, and perhaps showing a little more sensitivity toward the worries of people for whom genuine oppression is a recent memory. And, most important of all, it would see both sides acknowledging that while the Supreme Court has ruled that authorities may put obstacles in the way both of firearms-purchasing and of ballot-casting, our political institutions may elect to impose them on neither — and maybe should. Who’s up for a little bipartisanship?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.