Editor’s note: This commentary appears courtesy of Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), who represents District 31 in central Arkansas. This article first appeared in the latest magazine issue of Talk Business Arkansas.
Voter ID legislation and the discussion surrounding it have created an urgency based for the most part on invention. Somehow, supporters of Voter ID have been seduced into believing there is a problem that simply does not exist at the polls.
Granted, there needs to be some consideration given to the absentee balloting process, which by the way was not the major impetus for this bill, according to discussion before the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus and in a recent Senate committee discussion.
The big concern centers on in-person voting at the polls despite there being no evidence to justify that concern. None, and that’s important to this discussion. Here’s why: It is neither wise nor prudent to spend time and taxpayers’ money on addressing a phantom.
In the face of evidence that clearly demonstrates Arkansas has a problem, I would fall in line with the sponsor to address it, but no such problem exists. So why has this legislation been introduced?
I believe the sponsor and his supporters have their reasons, reasons I am not at liberty to question. I take them at their word they believe Voter ID serves some public interest. But no matter how well intentioned, it’s the outcome that matters.
For many in historically marginalized groups, Voter ID tramples on the hard won, unencumbered access to vote. No small matter. Like many others, I thought this access was settled, freeing all of us to move on to solve problems based in evidence. How about continuing the journey to make it easier to vote rather than erecting well-intentioned barriers?
When I was a child growing up in my South, I strained to hear the voices of my elders as they whispered about poll taxes. I did not know what poll taxes meant. I just knew it had something to do with voting, something so weighted elders huddled hunch-shouldered as they whispered their fears.
Years later when I came to understand the full measure of the obstacles to their right to vote, my heart broke for the indignity they quietly suffered. Of the things I carry from my childhood, this memory is one of the most pronounced.
Equally so was the passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when I was 13 and 14 years old, respectively. There was unbridled celebration, later proven to be unwarranted, for ahead lay a long, and in many cases, bloody road to fulfillment of the promise of 1964 and 1965. In time, though, voting became a routine matter of civic engagement.
So when states began requiring an ID to vote, it was deeply disappointing. Now it’s just plain haunting, and I am chagrined Arkansas just might follow the crowd-sourcing mythology of voter fraud at the polls.
Intended or not, this legislation is fraught with psychological and physical roadblocks to voting. Consider, for example, the folks who will most likely have to regroup to adjust to the Voter ID mandate are the elderly, the poor, students, non-drivers, and people of color. I suggest this is the effect because the conceivers of the legislation in Arkansas and elsewhere understandably set the norms for compliance with Voter ID according to their life experiences and their present positions in life, which inform assumptions on which much of their reasoning is built. As a result, voters in quite different situations will be required to conform to an act with no basis in fact. They just have to do so because…
This legislation is not aspirational. It doesn’t appeal to our higher moral being. It assumes that at the core, there is a desire to “do wrong.” Why is that? Based on what? In light of Arkansas’ less than stellar voter turnout, we should look to inspire citizens to vote by making it easier and inviting.
A quick look at turnout in Presidential elections from 1992-2012 supports the need for inspiration, not suspicion. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the following are percentages of how Arkansans voted in these elections: 1992-53.74%; 1996-47.14%; 2000-47.03%; 2004-52.04%; 2008-51.92%; and 2012-48.96%. This trend clearly suggests our efforts just might be misplaced.
Supporters will probably contend that Voter ID is compatible with increasing voter turnout, which is mind-boggling. It just defies logic with a turnout trend like ours that requiring extra effort to vote will result in more people voting. In fact, supporters of the Voter ID bill report that turnout in Georgia increased after passage of a Voter ID law, clearly implying a connection without any evidence or logic reason to support such an implication.
In person voter fraud in Arkansas is not an issue. It’s an invention. Absentee voting can be addressed without trampling on historic gains. We are Arkansas, not the other 33 states we are set to following down a wrong turn. We are better than that.