Belatedly, federal Judge Richard Posner has arrived at the obvious conclusion about voter identification laws: They are enacted as a barrier to the franchise, an un-American tactic hatched by conservatives to prevent certain people from voting. It’s too bad that his epiphany came so late.
Posner is one of the nation’s most respected conservative jurists. As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, he might have led the nation’s highest court to reject new restrictions around voting. Instead, in 2007, Posner wrote the majority opinion that upheld Indiana’s stringent law, setting the stage for the U.S. Supreme Court to reason that it did no harm to an unfettered franchise.
That was quite wrong, as Posner now acknowledges. While he disavowed his earlier endorsement of the law in a new book, Reflections of Judging, he went further in a video interview earlier this month with The Huffington Post, saying that the dissenting view was the right one.
In that dissent, the late Judge Terence Evans wrote: “Let’s not beat around the bush: The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic.” That about sums it up.
Still, I see in Posner’s late-arriving epiphany occasion for hope that debates about obstacles to voting, which have proliferated in states controlled by Republicans, will now proceed with more intellectual honesty. Let’s give up the preposterous justification that the barrage of new restrictions around the franchise — regulations that include limits on early voting — are intended to prevent voter fraud.
Recently, the consequences of those restrictions have been clear in Texas, which was among the states that rolled out new measures after the U.S. Supreme Court decimated the Voting Rights Act earlier this year. (Posner has had interesting comments about that decision too, dismissing its intellectual and legal foundations as non-existent. “The opinion rests on air,” he wrote.)
Eighty-four-year-old Dorothy Card, a Texas resident, has voted for six decades, but she stopped driving 15 years ago and doesn’t have a driver’s license, the ID preferred in voter-suppression states. By late last month, she had tried three times to obtain an ID that would allow her to vote in November elections, according to Think Progress, a left-leaning political blog. Her daughter said she would keep trying but with little expectation of success since each attempt required a different set of documents.
But perhaps the case that poses the biggest challenge for the Texas voter-suppression camp concerns a sitting judge, Sandra Watts. She was nearly barred from voting earlier this month because her name is listed slightly differently on her driver’s license than on voter registration rolls. Her driver’s license lists her maiden name as her middle name, while the voter registration roll lists her real middle name. As a consequence, she was told she’d have to vote using a provisional ballot, which would be checked to assure her identity.
As she told a Texas TV station, it’s not unusual for a married woman to condense her name by putting her maiden name in the middle. “I don’t think most women know that this is going to create a problem. That their maiden name is on their driver’s license, which was mandated in 1964 when I got married …” she said.
Meanwhile, there are no — zip, zilch, zero — comparable stories of fraud prevented by the new laws. Perhaps that’s because in-person fraudulent voting of the sort the new laws ostensibly prevent is virtually non-existent. Analyses have consistently shown that voter fraud is much more likely to occur through absentee ballots, which the voter-suppression crowd have usually ignored.
Here’s the not-so-hidden agenda behind voter ID laws: blocking the franchise for voters who lean toward Democrats. Those voters can be found easily enough among poorer blacks and Latinos, who tend to be less likely to own cars and to have driver’s licenses. Target them, and you can shave off several hundred or a few thousand votes — enough to win a close election.
That’s what Republicans are up to. Let’s hope Posner’s acknowledgment might at least spark more honesty about their motives.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Vox Efx via Flickr