So I was sick last week and went to the emergency room, where I had to show ID before I was seen by a doctor; he thought it might be appendicitis and sent me for a CT scan. Again, I had to show ID before being scanned. (By the way, I’m fine, just a bad stomach bug.) As I think about it, over the last month I’ve had to show ID to rent a car, fly on a plane, and get a hotel room. I’ve been asked for ID at the grocery store in order to buy a six-pack of beer, at office buildings in Washington so I could get past the lobby security guard, and at the bank to get a cash withdrawal. We all know what a hassle it is to have your wallet stolen—it’s not that the canceling of the credit cards is so bad, it’s the losing of the ID that makes it a crisis. These days, you have to show your ID for just about everything.
That’s what makes E.J. Dionne’s column this week so mystifying. Dionne wrote about the push in many states to require ID before one can vote. He points out that in Texas, for example, “The law allows concealed handgun licenses as identification, but not student IDs.” Maybe that has something to do with the fact that so many student IDs are altered and used as fake IDs to buy beer; back when I was in college, most bars wouldn’t accept a student ID, only a government-issued drivers’ license, as proof of age. Handgun licenses are government-issued as well, which would explain why a state government would approve their use, but not that of student IDs. But Dionne tries to make it into a partisan issue by arguing that Sen. John McCain won a wider margin of gun-owning voters nationally than Barack Obama did, and that really, Republicans in state legislatures are behind all of this “rigging.” [Read articles about gun control and gun rights.]
He also takes issue with states who are limiting the number of days available for early voting—not a surprise in times of state and local budget cuts, with fewer poll workers to man the voting locations—as well as the ability of registered voters to change their addresses at the polls. Again, that makes sense to me. If I were to move out of my neighborhood and then return there to vote, they wouldn’t let me just change my address and vote there, they’d send me to the correct precinct to vote. I don’t think that’s partisan, that’s organized.
Dionne then goes on to the heart of his argument—that this is about race. He quotes state lawmakers who compare requiring ID to establishing poll taxes and speculates that this is the return of Jim Crow laws. Dionne doesn’t use the word “racist,” but it’s pretty clear he finds these new proposals to be just that. “This is the civil rights issue of our moment,” he declares, because the effect will be to reduce turnout among African-Americans and Latinos. He doesn’t think this is about reducing voter fraud at all. [Read RNC Chairman Reince Priebus: Anti Voter Fraud Reforms Are Practical, Not Partisan.]
I don’t get why Dionne thinks some people would have a hard time producing ID because of the color of their skin. I can understand other reasons—homeless people might have a difficult time proving their place of residence, or illiterate people might not be able to fill in the paperwork—but to imply that getting and using an ID is somehow too difficult or onerous for some racial groups seems very condescending to me. What does skin color or ethnic background have to do with it? When we ask people to produce ID to get healthcare, as I had to, or to prove their identity to get an Amtrak ticket, no one says this is a return to segregation.
I’d be willing to bet that most Americans these days have some form of ID. (Let’s not even talk about how many passwords we have to keep track of, in addition to usernames and IDs.) Thirty years ago, I can understand folks not having IDs, but not now. These days, you need ID to navigate daily life in America. The only question is why it’s not wrong to ask someone to prove who they say they are in order to buy beer or enter an office building, but it is in order to cast a vote for president. The stakes are much higher.