The basic mechanism at the heart of the democratic process is voting. The practice of voting not only defines the individual’s role within American society, but also determines who will lead the nation and what policies will be implemented. As the ability to vote is one of the most treasured and revered rights of United States citizens, it may seem absurd that a number of states are currently working to restrict millions of Americans in their ability to vote.
Many citizens today associate voting restrictions with the dark days of the Jim Crow South and wrongly assume that the country has moved past such unfair laws; however, 30 states currently have voter identification laws that limited the ability of citizens to vote, according to the University of Illinois Institutes of Government and Public Affairs. These laws require that would-be voters present state-issued photo identification (ID) at polling stations in order to vote. Although this may not seem like a large limitation, the Brennan Center estimates that 11 percent of Americans lack the identification needed under the laws to vote. Photo identification can be difficult to obtain because in order to get a photo ID, one needs a birth certificate, but in order to get a birth certificate, one needs a photo ID, creating a vicious cycle. This means that millions of Americans who have committed no crime nor violated any laws will be unable to exercise their fundamental right to vote and express their opinion in regards to the actions of the government.
Not only do these laws prohibit individuals from voting, but they also target specific groups unfairly. The Brennan Center estimates that 25 percent of African Americans lack picture IDs. Furthermore, people making less than $25,000 per year are more than twice as likely to lack photos IDs compared to those making more than $25,000. These laws are proven to lower voter turnout and disproportionately affect certain demographics, so why are they implemented at all? Although many claim that these laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, the Loyola Law School found that there were only 31 credible cases of voter impersonation in general, primary, special, and municipal elections between 2000 and 2014. Unfortunately, there real reason that state legislatures implement voter ID laws is blatantly political. A study conducted by the University of California, San Diego found that in elections between 2008 and 2012, new voter ID laws decreased voter turnout among Hispanic voters by 10.8% and doubled the voting gap between whites and African Americans. This suppression of minority voting resulted in the turnout of Democratic voters dropping by 7.7%, a phenomenon that works to the advantage of Republican candidates. Some Republican leaders are even open about the selfish and partisan reasons for these laws. According to the Huffington Post, when asked if new voter ID laws in his state influenced the 2012 elections, Pennsylvania Republican Chairman Robert Gleason replied “we probably had a better election. Think about this, we cut Obama by 5 percent, which was big… I think that probably photo ID helped a bit in that.” The law to which Gleason referred disenfranchised an estimated 500,000 potential voters in his state. Politicians put their own careers and interests ahead of the principles of democracy and the nation’s wellbeing when they implement strict voter ID laws.
Americans cannot remain blind to the problem of restrictive voter identification laws, nor can they sit passively as state legislatures attempt to revert the nation back towards oppression and discrimination. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed during his own struggle to protect the voting rights of millions of Americans “voting is the foundation stone for political action”. By limiting the ability of citizens to vote as part of their unprincipled effort to boost numbers at the polls and promote members of their own party, these politicians disassemble the democratic foundations upon which the nation was built. Only if the population uses their influence, through protesting, petitioning, speaking, and voting, can the unjust tide of voter identification laws be stopped. Only then can the ideals of American be upheld.