When I was in high school, I was selected as a representative to Girls’ State, a week-long summer program which teaches young women about the political system by guiding them through simulated local, municipal, state, and federal elections. In short, we learn about politics by running for office. I ended up running as a candidate for Senator to Girls Nation, inspired by the then radical idea of improving democratic participation through motor-voter registration (which, as an aside, I lost to another young woman who boasted the far more exciting platform of multicultural education). Over the next decade, states implemented, to varying degrees, their own policies to accord with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (signed by Bill Clinton) that required states to adopt motor-voter registration. While it wasn’t particularly exciting politically, the simple logic of increasing voter participation by easing access—by registering someone to vote automatically when they registered for a license–became an agreed upon standard for registration and proxy for voter participation across the U.S. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this in the past week, as the federal appeals court struck down parts of North Carolina’s 2013 voting law which required, among other provisions, residents to present a valid photo ID at their polling station in order to vote—of which, a valid driver’s license was the most commonly accepted ID.
While the appeals court provided evidence that the law was racially-motivated and discriminatory, the language and provisions limiting early voting, out of precinct voting, same day registration and, in particular, a valid photo ID, on the face of it seemed (especially to Republicans) altogether reasonable. How difficult, after all, is it to get a photo ID, to register before election day, or show up to the right precinct to vote? These seem reasonable to ensure the sanctity of the democratic process, right? Not really, as it turns out. And the truth is that, even in the process of liberalizing registration laws to make registration easier for many—like motor-voter registration—we have increasingly taken voting rights for granted at the same time that we fail to recognize privilege and inequality in our ability to freely exercise our vote.
I know I took it for granted, right up to the point of standing in line in a Baltimore precinct years later to be turned away from voting and ultimately disenfranchised by rules and practices that regularly limit voting rights in the urban, poor neighborhood in which I lived and which are reflected in the North Carolina law.
By the time I moved to Baltimore from New Jersey, motor-voter registration was the law of the land. But the law was often, as I learned, unjustly and unequally adopted in practice. In my case, for example, I was assured that I was registered to vote at the Maryland DMV. Then, as a student, I moved the next year to another address in Baltimore and promptly updated my license at the DMV. Still registered, right? No. Later that year, I lined up to vote with my new license only to find out that when my address changed and I changed it at the DMV, my voter registration didn’t follow. Apparently, I was supposed to stand in the four-hour line at the DMV for the special form to check off a box to move my registration as well. And I couldn’t vote via my old registration at the precinct associated with my old address either. Nor could I register that day to vote at the proper precinct. Does this sound familiar? Unable to register on the same day and unable to vote out of precinct–two of the provisions of the 2013 North Carolina law that were struck down this week–I ultimately didn’t get to vote, along with 3,000 other people. And yes, I lived in a neighborhood which was predominantly African-American.
In all honesty, it only occurred to me recently that, even in this situation, I still had tremendous privilege. I had a Maryland license. I cannot tell you to this day what residents of my neighborhood who did not have access to driver’s ed, a car, or a license had to do in order to register to vote; in that moment, I confess, I was far more concerned about the fact that more mobile and transient populations in the city with licenses (people like me) were not entitled to vote because the change of address didn’t automatically translate to a change in registration. But let’s face it: I had a license in the first place because I passed driver’s ed in a suburban high school and was privileged to have it included in the school’s curriculum, supported by driving lessons with my dad and practice in either of my parents’ two cars in my suburban life. By contrast, my husband grew up relatively poor, without a car and without access to one in the center of Montreal; to this day, he does not have a license.
The truth is that even when laws have been changed to ostensibly make registration and voting easier to increase participation, even with simplified photo ID systems (i.e. your license), barriers can and have been erected time and again to limit these rights and are regularly and disproportionately applied to already marginalized neighborhoods and groups. I can’t help but think now that the drive for easing and liberalizing voter registration through the DMV created the strange and ultimately paradoxical idea that a photo ID like a license should be required to vote; rather than expanding enfranchisement, it instead became a weapon of disenfranchisement for millions of Americans (most from urban areas, disproportionately minority) who do not own cars and do not drive.
While the ruling today was a victory for many, make no mistake: many of the practices laid bare in North Carolina’s voting law are not, in fact, new. What is new is the boldness with which many declare these limitations as necessary, normal, and, indeed, reasonable to ostensibly ensure that all those people clamoring to commit voter fraud don’t steal an election.
Which raises the far more important question in all of this: what the hell is everyone afraid of—that we all might use a fake license or register on the same day to steal an election?
Before you answer, consider this: how many of you have thought about impersonating someone else and, specifically, of falsifying documents to the government at the risk of arrest for personal gain? Hopefully not many. Now how many people would you estimate would go so far as to impersonate someone else, falsify documents to the government, and essentially commit fraud for any reason? A few? A small percentage, perhaps? For what reason? What first comes to mind? Money?
Now how many do you think would be willing to do so to vote in a U.S. election? Chances are the answer is ‘does not compute’—it’s hard enough, after all, to get Americans to vote in the first place. Yet, apparently, we should be so seriously concerned about the chances of voter fraud that North Carolina—one of several states—thought it necessary to propose, debate and pass legislation to make sure all those people registering to vote and flocking to the polls needed to jump through several hoops in order to exercise their most basic democratic right and responsibility.
The appeals court clearly demonstrated that many of the provisions of North Carolina’s law, such as limitations on early voting and same-day registration, were driven not by a concern for a better, more just and democratic process, but by racism and discrimination. For this, the law should justly be challenged and stricken down.
Yet the far more fundamental question we should be asking ourselves is this: what are the long-term consequences of practices and now laws that have pervasively and persistently limited voter’s rights and what, as a country, is the cost to the U.S. as a democracy? How many people have been discouraged and turned away from their polling place in North Carolina between 2013 and 2016–three years of disenfranchisement that targeted black voters ‘with surgical precision’? And what, ultimately, does this communicate to neighborhoods, communities, and citizens who take the time and energy to exercise their vote but are systematically denied their right to do so? Finally, given the systemic curtailing of fundamental rights in voting, due process, and other basic guarantees to equal treatment under the law, are lawmakers and political elites really all that surprised at the massive swelling in collective action across the United States over the past two years by communities sick of being targeted and treated as though black lives don’t matter?
At the end of the day, let’s remember that our goal is, as much as possible, to retain faith in a democratic system by empowering people to participate in it, of which voting is the most basic aspect of that participation and the key to engagement as well as belonging. Most of all, let’s also remember that experiences that make it difficult or limit that participation lead invariably down the road to discontent, disengagement, and lethargy—exactly the opposite of what we need in a healthy democracy.