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Elders and Voter ID Laws

Posted Jul 25 2011 8:30am

category_bug_politics.gif In Saturday's special edition of Interesting Stuff , I mentioned voter ID laws that are being used in an increasing number of states to suppress certain kinds of voters by requiring a government-issued photo ID to be presented at polling stations to receive a ballot.

Reader Diana Rothberg left a note stating that she doesn't see what's wrong with voter ID laws:

“I've never understood why requiring ID for voting is discriminatory. We need ID to cash a check, get on an airplane, get senior prices at the movies. Could you please explain this?”

I left a short explanation for Diana in the comments, but today I want to expand on it both as a political tool and as it relates to elders.

For most voters, the acceptable ID to vote is a drivers license, but many people do not drive. Another reader, Ellyn, pointed out that many states issue non-driver ID cards which are widely accepted for check cashing, airline security and senior discounts, among other activities.

(I must note that I have never been asked to prove I'm old enough for a senior discount; they just look at me and know.)

This is all well and good. The difficulty arises when the ID is required to vote because it then becomes a de facto poll tax. After the 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave voting rights to people of all races, some states instituted poll taxes and other restrictions designed to prevent blacks from voting.

This intent was made obvious when some of those states exempted citizens who had voted in previous elections (all white, of course) from the poll tax.

In 1964, passage of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution abolished the use of any kind of tax as a pre-condition for voting in federal elections. It states:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”

Then in 1966, in a case titled Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the prohibition on poll taxes to state elections. The Constitution and the law are abundantly clear: no tax or fee may be imposed as a condition for voting in any election.

As with drivers licenses, states charge a fee to issue a non-driver photo ID. A random check of about a dozen states shows that fees range from as little as $5 in Maine and Iowa to $44.50 in Oregon. Some states have a sliding scale of fees that increases depending on the number of years for which the ID is valid.

Supporters of voter ID laws, which have been instigated by Republicans, maintain that they are important to help reduce voter fraud. Please. The greater problem is getting people to vote at all and the only significant voter fraud I can recall in recent times took place in Florida in 2000 and it was not about fraudulent votes. From NPR :

”Doug Chapin, an election expert with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, says one problem with the current debate is that there's little data to back up either side.

“Chapin says there's not only no evidence of widespread fraud, but 'you really haven't seen, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, a whole lot of evidence that there are large numbers of people who are registered to vote, or want to register to vote, and don't have the kind of ID that would be required.'”

It may be true, as Chapin says, that it is not a matter of people lacking the required kind of ID to obtain a non-driver photo ID (others disagree with him), but he omits the point about the de facto poll tax and the extra hardship for elders.

All the states I checked require an in-person visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain a non-driver ID. For many elders, this can be an almost insurmountable problem. One, if they want a non-driver ID, they don't drive. Two, a larger proportion of elders than young people have difficulty getting around easily on public transportation (or at all) and some do not have anyone to call on for help.

Here is another comment from Trish Corl:

”I drove my 91 year old mom to the DMV (CA) this past May, when her driver's license expired, to convert her over to a Senior Photo ID. She can no longer drive and lives in an assisted living community. If not for me, her fantastic Designated Daughter (!), she would have no "government issued" ID and no way to get one.

“It was a real challenge for my mom to go through this process, even with my total support and companionship. She is mentally fine, but physically frail, and the process was such a long, complicated slog.

"It's so easy to assume that these things are accessible for seniors, when the reality is quite different.”

Due to direct deposit (which becomes a requirement for all Social Security recipients next year), there is little reason for elders to cash a check anymore. Many people do not fly or visit foreign countries and they get senior discounts the same way I do so the fee becomes a de facto poll tax.

The trajectory of voter ID laws are not on elders' side.

In a 6-3 decision in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a voter ID law in an Indiana case. "We cannot conclude that the statute imposes 'excessively burdensome requirements' on any class of voters," said Justice John Paul Stevens writing for the majority.

In his dissent, Justice David Souter wrote that Indiana's voter ID law "threatens to impose nontrivial burdens on the voting rights of tens of thousands of the state's citizens."

For many elders, the burden is indeed nontrivial both physically and financially. Remember that the average monthly Social Security payment is $1100 – less than $275 a week - which accounts for 90 percentage of the income of a large percentage of elders and half the income for millions more.

Another reader, Margie, left this comment on Saturday's post:

”I haven't had a car since 2004. I've kept up my driver's license because - well, because I keep thinking things will get better. But the last time it came up for renewal this past April, the fee was $32 here in California. That's a lot to me now, and it gave me pause. I did renew the license, but at the expense of several weeks' worth of decent groceries.

“Yes, this systematic disenfranchisement is real, it is effective, and it is evil.”

Legal challenges to voter ID laws in several states are wending their way through the court system. Given the tenor of our times and the makeup of the current Supreme Court, I don't have a lot of hope for their success.

All hail the return of the poll tax and the disenfranshisement of elders (among others).

UPDATE: Given a couple of emails I've received this morning (I do wish you would post your thoughts as comments), I did not make myself clear in this post. So let me try again:

Millions of people - some young, many old - who do not drive or do not travel by air have no reason to maintain a drivers license or to obtain a non-driver ID except, due to voter ID laws, to vote. That makes the fee for these documents a de facto poll tax and disenfranchises those who cannot get to a DMV.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: The Perfect Wish

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