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The Latest Lie In The Push For Voter ID Restrictions

To the Republican supporters of laws that would treat the poll booth like an exclusive nightclub that asks for photo ID and other qualifications before allowing entry, the answer to why anyone would oppose this is simple: They must not want to vote bad enough.

This was the logic for Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman who last week on MSNBC said "I really don't think they care that much about voting in the first place, right?" in response to a question about how African-American voters might be impacted by voter ID and early voting cuts.

This is not anomalous thinking among Republicans. Similar comments have been made by Republican state legislators in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Florida. In fact, they say these things so often publicly that you have to wonder if it’s some kind of dog-whistle to the more racially polarized portion of their voting base.

The idea that people of color don't "care" about voting ignores how expensive it can be to meet the qualifications of voter ID laws to begin with. Those expenses are irrelevant only to those who can easily meet them. On Friday November 15th, a federal court trial over Wisconsin’s voter ID law concluded after two weeks of testimony from at least a dozen state residents illustrating how difficult it’s been to obtain the photo ID need to vote. It also featured the testimony of state government officials who dismissed those residents’ burdens as easily surmountable.

The question of who’s right in that tug of war comes down to careful consideration of the racial and class contexts of the law. If you are a white male with a government job, you obviously are in tune enough with the law, and have the resources to meet it. But if you are not that … well consider the statistics:

  • 78% of African-American men in Wisconsin between the ages of 18 and 24 did not have a driver’s license
  • 66% of young African-American women in the same age range lacked a driver’s license
  • 57% of young Latino men aged 18 to 24, and 63% of young Latinas lack driver’s licenses

During the Wisconsin trial, statistician Leland Beatty testified that more than 300,000 registered Wisconsin voters did not have a driver’s license or state ID card in 2012—16.2 percent of them African-American registered voters compared to just 9.5 percent of registered white voters. For Latinos, over 24 percent lacked a driver’s license or state ID card. Beatty analyzed the same data for 2013 and found the same racial disparate impact.

The burden suffered by people of color in Wisconsin under a voter ID law is not an academic exercise about stats, though. Real Wisconsin residents testified about how hard it is to comply with the law—a law unnecessary given the state went hundreds of years without it and yet still managed to earn the top score in election performance by the Pew Research Center last year. Despite that, the expenses that come along with the voter ID law were laid bare during the November trial, which is the first litigated under the Voting Rights Act’s Section Two since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the civil rights law this summer.

Lorene Hutchins, a 93-year-old, African-American woman born in Mississippi was able to retrieve her birth certificate from her home state only after her daughter Katherine Clark helped her through the arduous process. It cost them over $2,000 in expenses and legal fees to do so.

Ray Ciszewski, a volunteer for his church’s program that helps the homeless and those recently released from prison obtain birth certificates for jobs, and lately to vote, testified that it costs on average $20 for a Wisconsin birth certificate. Roughly 23 percent of the people he’s tried to help were unable to get their birth certificates for a number of reasons, he said during the trial.

Carmen Cabrera of the Latino non-profit Centro Hispano Milwaukee testified that many of their members encountered language barriers—in particular, a limited availability of Spanish-speaking DMV clerks—when they help them get state IDs. Not to mention, there’s limited access to the DMV offices around the state since most of them are open only on weekdays and close at 4:30 p.m. Anytime voters have to take time off from work or school to haggle with DMV operators, especially those who don’t speak their language, that is a cost voters have to bare.

Attorney General Kawski called these plaintiffs' experiences "uncommon, bizarre and one-of-a-kind exceptions"—again, only bizarre to those who privileged enough to not have to deal with the every day struggles of people of color and low income.

I encountered this same dynamic last year while covering the Pennsylvania court trial over its voter ID law, where poor people of color had to prove that they even existed, ID or not. Over two dozen witnesses, mostly black and Latino, provided account after account about how difficult it is for them to transact with the government over ID while state officials responded on the stand by placing those life stories in doubt. That case is still unresolved, pending a judge’s ruling

More stories about the costs and burdens of Wisconsin residents who lack ID are bound to surface. The Wisconsin state supreme court this week decided to hear two other challenges to the voter ID law filed by local NAACP and League of Women Voter chapters. Other Voter ID law challenges are waiting for their day in court in North Carolina and Texas—the latter of which is a protracted court battle that rivals only Wisconsin in terms of time elapsed without resolving the voter ID controversy. Texas's law was stopped last year in federal court under a Voting Rights Act Section 5 challenge. When the Supreme Court invalidated Section Five’s coverage formula, Texas immediately reinstated the law, which ranks at the top of the nation with Wisconsin in terms of its voter restrictions. It is headed back to federal court, this time under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

The stakes for all of these voter ID trials are not only who may or may not show up to vote in 2014 and 2016, but also whether government officials will finally recognize the true costs and burdens of being poor, black and brown in America as illustrated in these court testimonies. It’s not that they don’t care about voting; it’s that too many obstructions have been placed in their way.