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Are Voter ID Laws the New Jim Crow? | The Nation

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Voting Rights Watch

Voting Rights Watch

In-depth coverage of voter suppression efforts nationwide, in partnership with Colorlines.com.

Are Voter ID Laws the New Jim Crow?

Over the weekend, David Goodman, brother of the Freedom Summer civil rights activist Andrew Goodman who was killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 for trying to help register African Americans to vote, wrote an op-ed in the Mississippi *Clarion-Ledger * equating new photo voter ID laws to the Jim Crow laws of last century. Lamenting the voter ID law that Mississippi voter residents voted into existence through ballot referendum — though African Americans voted against it in droves — Goodman recalled the wretched history of violence visited upon black Southerners who were merely trying to exercise their rights. Wrote Goodman:

These new Jim Crow photo ID laws are being promoted in states controlled by Republicans, the Party of Lincoln. Any party can carry out voter suppression - but it’s always wrong. It was wrong in 1964 and it is wrong today.

As much as I appreciate Goodman’s opinion, and his courage to continue the work of his slain brother in championing the rights of African Americans to vote, I have to beg to differ with his framing of the issue. Photo voter ID laws are bad policies, and they have serious potential to suppress voter turnout for millions of people, mostly people of color, low-income citizens, elderly populations and college students. But this is not the equivalent of Jim Crow.

With all due respect to Goodman and dozens of other pundits who’ve tagged photo voter ID laws with Jim Crow’s name, the situation is terrible enough on its own merits and doesn’t need extra special effects for legitimacy. Jim Crow laws permanently disenfranchised citizens by placing insurmountable barriers that were mostly impossible to overcome to keep African Americans from voting and living freely with equal protection under the law — barriers that were mostly reinforced violently through the terror of groups like the Ku Klux Klan. We should never trivialize that fact.

Current photo voter ID laws that are sweeping across the nation, or at least any legislature with a Republican stronghold, are no trivial matter, either. But it’s hard to make the case that they rise to the level of Jim Crow violence, and even given certain similarities, it doesn’t really help the cause of those fighting to protect voting rights to hyperbolize the movement. Sticking to the facts are enough.

Political science professor Richard L. Hasen, author of the upcoming book The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdownwrote recently on his Election Law Blog that “Democrats err and overreach with the Jim Crow analogies.” I agree. Hasen was commenting on statements made by Philadelphia Young Democrats president Malik Boyd. The same analogy was made recently by Rev. Al Sharpton during this month’s Selma-to-Montgomery march against voter ID laws.

Don’t get me wrong — I get it. Any law that disproportionately impacts minorities in a way that could potentially lead to discriminatory effects should be shamed away, pro-actively, early and often. But we don’t need to brand voter ID laws with the mark of Satan just to make the point that this is really bad policy. The facts speak resoundingly clear for themselves, and no one is being lynched on their way to applying for a driver’s license to vote.

That all said, I would like to turn attention to a problem that really does deserve the “New Jim Crow” brand: felony disenfranchisement. Michelle Alexander detailed a clear-cut argument for why people who have paid their price to society through prison time — often for trivial “crimes” — deserve to have their rights fully restored, particularly their voting rights, in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Alexander’s use of the term is not hyperbole. We’re talking about millions of people, the overwhelming most of whom are African Americans who in most states are permanently barred from voting, not to mention other services like receiving public benefits. These felony disenfranchisement laws have been on the books for decades, and in many states like Tennessee, it’s written into the constitution.

Writes Alexander in her book:

No other country in the world disenfranchises people who are released from prison in a manner even remotely resembling the United States. … Throughout much of the United States, ex-offenders are expected to pay fines and court costs, and submit paperwork to multiple agencies in an effort to win back a right that should never have been taken away in a democracy. These bureaucratic minefields are the modern-day equivalent of poll taxes and literacy tests — “colorblined” rules designed to make voting a practical impossibility for a group defined largely by race.

Today, many non-felonized voters will have to jump through hoops and hurdles to get the necessary kind of ID needed to vote in the 2012 election, and some may elect not to do the jumping, hence the suppression. But there are no alternatives for millions experiencing felony-ism, losing basic rights even after having served their due time in prison. Let’s not conflate the two, or confuse present problems with past catastrophes. We don’t need to water down the name of “Jim Crow” to show that new voter ID laws potentially and very likely will have burdensome effects on voters of color.

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