Elections

End the Left–Right Stalemate on Voter Rights

Polling place in Columbus, Ohio, 2012 (Matt Sullivan/Reuters)
Martin Luther King III and Andrew Young have a good idea: the ‘Freedom Card.’

Much of the United States will pause this Wednesday to ponder the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The causes he championed live on — albeit imperfectly — in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But sadly, too often the advocates of identity politics have forgotten King’s call for people to be “judged by the content of their character, and not the color of their skin.”

Another King legacy that is deeply disputed is voting rights. All across the political spectrum, there’s agreement that our voting system is broken. Academics lament our low voter turnout. Liberals blame that on obstacles to voting, such as registration laws and ID requirements. Conservatives say our rickety system is vulnerable to bureaucratic incompetence and voter fraud.

It’s time to end this Left–Right stalemate, which caused the Obama Justice Department to spend over $50 million to fight ballot-integrity laws. Various civil-rights groups probably spent an equal or greater amount. What if all that money had gone instead into real efforts to put an ID in people’s hands?

There is a way to transcend ideological differences on voting rights. Former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, a confidant of the late civil-rights leader, and King’s son Martin Luther King III have come together to propose a “Freedom Card.”

Make it possible to add a picture to Social Security cards and transform them into government-issued photo IDs.

They say it’s obvious that people without a photo ID face a real hardship in life — they are unable to cash a check without predatory fees, to travel easily, to get married, and to apply for Medicare. At the same time, Young and King acknowledge that many people have concerns about voter fraud. They say there is a commonsense way to address both concerns: Make it possible to add a picture to Social Security cards and transform them into government-issued photo IDs. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration estimated that producing a Social Security card with an embedded photo would cost only eight cents a card. Because of identity-theft concerns, a photo-ID Social Security card would be limited mostly to those people without any other form of ID.

Martin Luther King III said: “My father used to talk about ending the silence of good people. I cannot emphasize enough the positive impact a free and easy-to-obtain photo ID will have for those who are marginalized.” Last year, the two men met with President-elect Trump in New York to press their idea. Trump liked the idea, and noted that the Freedom Card would also improve the integrity of the I-9 employee-verification process that verifies citizenship, since it would be much harder for a person applying for a job to use another worker’s card. I’m told the White House is actively considering issuing an Executive Order that would throw the weight of the federal government behind making the Freedom Card available.

Other Republicans also see promise in a photo-ID Social Security card. “It would help tone down the debate over who is trying to manipulate the system and actually get real ID into the hands of whoever doesn’t have one — something we should all agree on,” said Don Palmer, a former secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections who is now with the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Every U.S. citizen is already entitled to a Social Security card. The Social Security Administration operates 1,300 offices around the country, staffed by people trained in helping people establish their identity. U.S. Postal Service offices, which are now used as receiving points for passport applications, could also be enlisted in outreach efforts.

The idea was proposed at a 2014 conference in Texas marking the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Former president Jimmy Carter, who supported requiring photo ID for elections after co-chairing a 2005 commission on voting issues, eagerly embraced the idea. He said he would “support it in a New York minute.” Former president Bill Clinton agreed: “The idea behind this agreement is to find a way forward that eliminates error and makes the best possible decision that we can all live with.#…#Let’s give somebody something else to argue about.” Former president George W. Bush has also expressed support for the concept of the Freedom Card.

So why isn’t the photo-ID Social Security card already available? One reason might be the ingrained habits of groups that have too much at stake with previously articulated positions. A spokesman for President Obama said in 2014 that the issue was being studied. But nothing ever came of it. My sources say the Freedom Card was opposed by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, who automatically oppose almost any voter-ID requirement.

When I discussed the Freedom Card idea in testimony on voting-rights issues before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last February, I was greeted by a stony silence. No questions were asked. One civil-rights attorney in the audience admitted to me privately that the groups in the room were interested more in victory than in a political solution. But average Americans should be looking for solutions.

In 2011, Rhode Island secretary of state Ralph Mollis, a Democrat, persuaded his state’s overwhelmingly Democratic legislature to pass a photo-ID bill to address problems of voter fraud in Providence and other cities. The bill was passed with the support of the state’s leading minority legislators. The effort included extensive outreach efforts, with members of Mollis’s office going to senior centers, homeless shelters, and community centers to process free IDs. The law has been implemented smoothly, Mollis says, and he views it as a national model. “When the day is done, my job is to maintain the integrity of elections,” he says. “Even if a state doesn’t have an immediate problem with fraud, doesn’t it make sense to take sensible precautions rather than wait for someone to abuse the system, and then it’s too late?”

The same thinking might apply across the country. All citizens should be able to become full participants in American life. Many on both left and right occupy common ground on the issue. Voter-ID laws improve the honesty and efficiency of elections. They can also empower people on the margins of society. In public-policy deliberations, we should grab the chance of a win-win solution when we can.

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