September 22, 2006

Commentary:

The ‘Harder To Vote’ Act

By Wade Henderson

Just two months ago, the nation watched Congress, both House and Senate, overwhelmingly reaffirm a commitment to voting rights when it reauthorized the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law guarantees access to the voting booth for all Americans for the next 25 years.

So it boggles the mind why we are having yet another national discussion about who can and cannot vote in this country.

Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed the “Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006” (HR 4844), sponsored by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., which would require all voters to obtain and show government-issued photo IDs proving their citizenship before they could vote.

Proponents of this ill-advised legislation say it is necessary to prevent voter misrepresentation—people showing up at the polls pretending to be someone they’re not.

While our electoral system isn’t perfect, the supporters of this bill are inflating voter fraud into a problem that just doesn’t exist. Congress and the states have proven extremely successful at preventing non-citizens from voting and ensuring that voters are who they claim to be.

Far greater problems loom over the electoral system than voter misrepresentation—scarcity of polling places, ill-prepared poll workers, faulty voting machines and lack of language-appropriate voting materials, to name just a few.

Just one week ago, on September 12, for example, countless voters in Montgomery County, Maryland, went to vote in the primary and found their regular polling places shuttered. In other cases, they were confronted with broken voting machines and a lack of paper ballots, with the result that they were turned away, disenfranchised, unable to cast their votes

Far from addressing such structural problems, the House-passed legislation creates another one—one that would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of registered voters.

On the surface, the bill seems reasonable. Many citizens might wonder what’s wrong with showing their government-issued driver’s license when they go to vote. But most states don’t require proof of citizenship to issue a person a driver’s license.

The only document that meets the bill’s requirement for proof of citizenship is a passport. According to the State Department, only 25 percent of Americans over age 18 have a passport. Passports can cost as much as $100.

In order to get a passport, you need your birth certificate. Do you know where your birth certificate is?

Many would probably have to pay for a replacement copy of their birth certificate so they could get a passport. At least another $20.

Let’s face it: HR 4844 is the equivalent of a poll tax since voters would have to pay for a passport to prove their citizenship in order to vote.

So we are left then to wonder why the need for this reckless law that will actually discourage, confuse and discriminate against voters. If passed, this onerous bill would prevent many eligible voters from exercising their right to vote, disproportionately affecting people of color, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, rural and Native American voters, the homeless, low-income people and married women, who studies show to be less likely to carry a photo ID.

Election reform in this country is necessary and a very serious matter, but HR 4844 is simply not the vehicle to address it.

The Senate is due to take up the bill shortly. We expect that, like its 98-0 vote to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, the Senate will give measured consideration of this bill and put an end to attempts to disenfranchise American voters.

Wade Henderson is the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

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