Why Hoosiers Don’t Vote

Yesterday, I took part in a “Pancakes and Politics” discussion hosted by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. There were three of us on the panel–yours truly, Beth White (former Marion County Clerk) and Abdul Shabazz (local radio personality and commentator/provocateur).

Abdul has actually posted the whole thing, so if you like beating your head against the wall, you can click here.

The panel was focused on civic engagement–especially voting–and as one might expect, there were a number of explanations offered for Indiana’s continaully abysmal turnout. (A pathetic 7% turned out for yesterday’s Indianapolis primary.) I’ll leave most of those for another day, but today I want to talk about a comment made by Beth White, because it really struck me.

Beth ticked off the numerous barriers that Indiana erects and noted that voting here is thus more difficult than it is elsewhere. Abdul disagreed. (Any election law expert will tell you Beth was right. Sorry, Abdul.) Her response was perfect: she pointed out that Indiana makes it easy to pay taxes, to get your auto license, and to do other things that policymakers want to encourage. It’s pretty clear– given the fact that our Voter ID law is the nation’s strictest, our polls are the first to close, we refuse to establish convenient voting centers or to allow vote-by-mail–that state government is not interested in encouraging people to vote.

Especially egregious is the refusal to allow the use of government-issued picture IDs to verify identity if those IDs don’t have an expiration date.

As Beth noted, it’s perfectly appropriate to ensure that voters are who they say they are–but that interest in preventing (virtually non-existent) voter fraud doesn’t require disallowing identification issued by government agencies that is widely accepted elsewhere. (According to the Secretary of State’s webpage, “noncompliant” identifications  include “An ID issued by the US Department of Defense, a branch of the uniformed services, the Merchant Marine, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (or Veterans Administration), or the Indiana National Guard.”)

It’s just another petty annoyance for those of us with drivers licenses (like Abdul), but a hassle–and a message–for the elderly or disabled or others who don’t drive.

The message? Stay home. (Thanks to the safe districts created by gerrymandering, there’s no contest in most parts of the state anyway.)

After all, if God had intended us to vote, She’d have given us candidates.


But Isn’t It All About Voter Fraud??

Yesterday, a Facebook friend who lives in Pittsburgh posted a story from the Pittsburgh Gazette about Sophie Maslow, the city’s feisty former Mayor. Now in her nineties, Maslow is anxiously awaiting the Pennsylvania court’s ruling on the state’s new voter ID law–turns out that if it is upheld, she will be unable to vote for the first time in her adult life.

As she says, when she could no longer drive, she cut up her driver’s license. Her passport is expired. She plans to go to a license branch to get a photo ID if the law is upheld, but is worried by her neighbor’s reports of long lines and confusion.

In Indiana, shortly after a federal court upheld our version of the voter ID law, a group of elderly nuns in South Bend was turned away from the polls for lack of  suitable identification.

Of course, it’s all for a good cause–the sanctity of the vote. A couple of weeks ago, a letter to the editor chastised critics of the new voter ID laws. They are necessary, the letter-writer insisted. He then recounted a recent example of fraud, a widely reported instance of a woman who had voted in two states. The problem with that example is that the voter ID laws would do nothing to prevent that particular type of behavior. Most simply require a government-issued identification that is current and has a photo. They don’t require proof of residence. A current passport can take you on vacation–or to polling places in more than one state. (The letter writer didn’t explain how the “fraudster” managed to get registered and on the voter rolls in multiple locations, but for argument’s sake, I’ll assume it’s possible.)

A number of credible sources have documented the extremely small number of instances in which there has been actual voting fraud. Furthermore, where it has occurred, it has overwhelmingly been in the process of absentee balloting, not in-person voting, and these laws do nothing about absentee voting.

It is easy to shrug off the burden these measures impose on the elderly and the poor. I have well-meaning friends who shrug off the requirements by pointing out that “everyone” has a photo ID these days. “How can you cash a check or board a plane without one?” They simply cannot picture (no pun intended) people for whom bank accounts and air travel are foreign experiences. They don’t know anyone personally who does not possess a birth certificate–although the lack of that document (necessary in order to obtain a voter ID) is fairly common among elderly and African-American folks who were born in rural areas.

As Sarah Silverman says, in a foul-mouthed but funny  You Tube that is making the rounds on the web, these laws cleverly target four demographics: the elderly, blacks, students and the poor.  I wonder what those demographics have in common….

Oh yeah. Sophie Maslow is a Democrat.


Circular Politics

We took our grandchildren to the Newseum today, and I would recommend it to anyone contemplating a trip to DC. It is a fabulous museum–not at all a dusty repository of newsprint, but an interactive, living testament to the practice of journalism. For our 8 and 10 year olds, there were numerous “games” and short films that buried instruction in entertainment–snapshots of the past as seen through the eyes of those who covered the events.

One of the short films focused on the Freedom Riders, the Birmingham boycott and Selma. Our grandchildren were shocked and uncomprehending, and we had a long talk about the treatment of African-Americans, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.

The film clip also showed President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act. The voice-over explained that in many Southern states, ways had been found to keep black people from voting, necessitating a federal law securing their right to cast their ballots.

All I could think of was how contemporary this sounded.

Indiana passed one of the first so-called “Voter ID” laws, justified by a need to reduce a non-existent “voter fraud,” but actually intended to suppress the vote of the poor and minority citizens who vote disproportionately for Democrats. Other states have followed suit. Most recently–and most brazenly–Governor Rick Scott of Florida ordered a draconian “purge” of that swing state’s voter rolls–so draconian, and so indiscriminate (hundreds of eligible voters found themselves summarily removed from the rolls), that the state’s county election officials–Republican and Democrat alike–refused to implement it, and the U.S. Justice Department has sued to halt it.

States may not be able to employ the Poll Tax any more, but these measures have proved to be very serviceable substitutes.

I thought about that while I was assuring my grandchildren that the law signed by President Johnson secured the right to vote for all our citizens. What I didn’t have the heart to tell them was that when you close a door that is being used by dishonorable people, they’re likely to find an open window to wriggle through.

Jefferson was sure right about one thing: eternal vigilance really is the price of liberty.


Vote–If You Can

Voter ID laws, as we all know, are a method to prevent voter fraud– in advance, apparently, since there is little or no evidence that in-person vote fraud has ever been a problem. Actually, as any sentient being knows, it is a way to keep “those people” from voting–“those people” being folks more likely to vote for the other party’s candidates.

Wisconsin has a voter ID law, which (like that in Indiana)requires their BMV to issue free ID’s to those who would otherwise be unconstitutionally disenfranchised. A minor scandal erupted when an email from a state official emerged, instructing BMV workers not to issue ID’s unless specifically asked, and not to inform customers that they were available. When an outraged emloyee urged his coworkers to “spread the word” among their acquaintances that people who needed them should ask, he was fired.

This was all about preventing fraud, of course. And I have some bargain beachfront property to sell you…

Of course, these efforts to make voting more inconvenient or difficult–and thus less likely–aren’t limited to Voter ID laws. Here in Marion County, where the incumbent Mayor needs all the help he can get to stay in office, Republicans have adamantly refused to approve satellite voting sites. They cite the expense, an excuse that rings pretty hollow from the party whose Mayor wants us to reelect him because, among other things, he has given money to private developers. (His words, not mine.)

Oh well. That “self rule” thing wasn’t working out so well anyway. Right?

Playing Politics

Last week, the Indiana Court of Appeals struck down the state’s controversial “Voter ID” law.

 For those of you who somehow missed the intensely political arguments about the motives for and effects of that measure—the most restrictive in the nation—let me briefly recap its somewhat checkered history.

 The measure was originally championed by Secretary of State Todd Rokita, and passed by Republican majorities in the Statehouse. Democrats sued, supported by a number of organizations, including the AARP, Rock the Vote and the NAACP.  They argued that the law violated the federal constitution by effectively disenfranchising many poor and elderly voters who, not so incidentally, tend to vote disproportionately Democratic. They also pointed out that Indiana had been unable to identify any instances of in-person voter fraud. (Where fraud had been confirmed, it was within the absentee ballot process, but the Voter ID law doesn’t apply to absentee voting.)  

 The Democrats lost in a split opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court, although the Court left the door open for a future challenge. The Supreme Court based its opinion largely on the absence of concrete evidence that the law had prevented people from casting ballots. The Democrats had been unable to identify real people who had been adversely affected by the law.

 The recent Indiana Court of Appeals case was brought by the League of Women Voters, and was based on a different theory and a different constitution. This time, the argument was that Indiana’s Constitution requires all voters to be treated uniformly, and that the Voter ID law treats absentee voters and in-person voters differently. The Court unanimously agreed.  

 If the legislature wants to keep the law, in other words, they’ll have to apply it to all voters, not just those who show up in person.

 This seems eminently reasonable, but Governor Daniels was quick to accuse all three judges who issued the opinion of “playing politics.” This rhetoric is unfortunate on a number of levels. It betrays unfamiliarity with the arguments involved, and—worse—paints judges as no more than partisans in robes. Such attacks, as the Indiana Bar Association pointed out, undermine the legitimacy of the judicial system.

Daniel’s intemperate reaction also appears to confirm suspicions that the Voter ID law was itself a partisan effort. As Doug Masson of Masson’s Blog observed in the wake of Daniel’s outburst, “The facts fit together better if you discard the premise that voter fraud was the purpose of the Voter ID law, and replace it with the premise that one political party, temporarily ascendant, saw fit to pass a law that would shave a percentage point or two off the other side’s votes. The Republicans made a calculation that the voters who would vote in person and not have identification would skew Democratic. That calculus changes if you apply the ID requirements to those who vote absentee. Therefore, the absentee voters weren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny.”

In other words, the judges weren’t the ones playing politics.