With the presidential election year of 2020 quickly approaching, voter suppression has become a topic of conversation in many areas of the country, including the District.
Voter suppression occurs when qualified voters have difficulty casting ballots because of such strategies as strict photo identification requirements, immediate changes in voting precincts without adequate public notice, the limitations of early and absentee voting, purging of voter rolls and closure of Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) offices.
Those practices are virtually nonexistent in the District, but the D.C. Democratic State Committee along with the Ward 8 Democrats held a forum — titled “#Don’tMuteMyVote: A National Conversation on Voter Suppression and Solutions to Increase Local Voter Participation” — to talk about the nationwide problem on June 6 at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Southeast.
The photo identification requirement has emerged as a voter suppression major issue.
Proponents of photo IDs say that even though costs are incurred, it prevents ineligible people from voting but opponents say minorities, the handicapped and the elderly are adversely affected because they tend not to have state-generated photo IDs than others. Tanya Clay House, who serves as the senior program officer for Voting Rights at the State Infrastructure Fund, thinks state-issued photo IDs is inherently unfair to many voters because of their costs.
“It is a sense of privilege,” House said. “For example, many people in New York City don’t drive and they don’t have a driver’s license or identification. That is also the case for many people in rural America.
“What we need to have in this country is an inclusive democracy and we can’t have that when barriers to voting to the ballot are created,” House said.
House said the photo ID laws “were created by people who don’t look like them” and “they don’t want certain people to participate in democracy.”
Robert Brandon, president and CEO of the Fair Elections Center, said photo IDs came into fruition in 2006 for nefarious reasons.
“There has been evidence that in some states, in backrooms, these photo ID requirements were passed so Blacks and youth don’t vote as much,” Brandon said. “This has become a part of a pattern.”
Brandon said since Shelby vs. Holder — the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case that invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 where a jurisdiction has to get preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before voting laws and practices are changed —state legislatures that became Republican instituted the photo ID laws.
“Those legislatures also changed early voting laws and rearranged precincts without cause,” he said.
Lakeila Stemmons, executive director of the National Voter Protection Action Fund, agreed with House that photo IDs convey a sense of privilege in voting and included that residents of tribal communities also are affected by the adverse voter laws.
Latoia Jones, vice president of public affairs for Hustle, a progressive outreach digital company, said college students are affected by photo IDs law also.
“The only ID that many college students have is their school ID,” Jones said. “In the state where photo IDs are issued by the state and they don’t accept college IDs, that prevents students from voting.”
Jones said in Texas residents with college IDs have trouble voting while those with hunting licenses are allowed to cast a ballot with no trouble.
Jon Bosworth, a senior legislative assistant to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), likened the photo IDs requirements to anti-voting programs from the pre-civil rights era, such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes and literacy tests.
Bosworth supports mail-in voting as an option, saying it will increase voter participation and voters won’t have to hassle with traveling to a polling site and having to deal with long lines and bureaucracy.
D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) has submitted a bill permitting mail-in voting.
Brandon and House understand the states have the constitutional right to determine their voting laws but also said the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law and that extends to casting a ballot.
“You have a right not to be discriminated against in voting, no matter what stay you live in,” House said. “There are still protections and the states should enforce those protections.”
Branson said people should be proactive in protecting their right to vote at the state level and should look at filing lawsuits and seeking assistance from the Justice Department if they are prevented from voting.