In Spring 2011, a bloc of Republican legislators and governors renewed the push to end alleged rampant voting fraud in the U.S. by requiring that people registered to vote show a government-issued photo ID, like a driver’s license, in order to vote. This caused an angry reaction amongst opponents of any move to set up what they call barriers to voting. Which side is right? What does the Constitution say about voting?
Surprisingly little. There is nothing about voting rights in the original body of the Constitution. That first Constitution simply states that officers of the government will be chosen by the People and the Electors. There were many Amendments made to the original Constitution in a very short time, and by 1791 the Twelfth Amendment addressed voting only to explain how the Electoral College was supposed to work. The Fifteenth Amendment extended the vote to black males in 1870, and the Seventeenth Amendment gave the People the right to vote directly for their Senators in 1913. In 1920, the Ninteenth Amendment extended the vote to women of all races, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 abolished the poll tax. Finally, in 1971, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment made age eighteen the legal voting age.
So if there is nothing in the Constitution about who can vote, how can asking for photo ID be wrong, or illegal?
If we look at the six Amendments that address voting, we see that all but one—the one about the Electoral College—expands the definition of who can vote. Black men and then all women are given the vote, people are allowed to vote directly for their Senators (who had previously been chosen by the Electoral College), younger people can vote (voting age had been 21). Most significantly of all, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 abolished the poll tax. Poll taxes were a shameful tool of white supremacists, who set up fees that “everyone” had to pay in order to vote. In reality, only black people were forced to pay a fee in order to vote, and the white supremacists running the polls made sure it was so expensive for most black citizens to pay the poll tax that they simply could not vote. It was an effective way of stripping black Americans of their right to vote and of keeping Civil Rights legislation moving at a snail’s pace, since only white people were voting, and most in the South did not vote for people who supported that legislation.
So the sum of all Constitutional Amendments regarding voting since 1870 has been to let more people vote, and to keep the process just. No one has to pay to vote in this c0untry. It is the right of a citizen to vote. All people have to do is register.
There have, of course, been ongoing attempts to make voting very difficult for the poor and the non-white. Minimal staffing at government offices ensure hours-long waits for registration, and often those who register find that they are not on the list of registered voters at their polling places. Polling places are often few and far between in poor districts, again ensuring a long drive or bus ride to the polling place and another hours-long wait to vote. Votes from poor districts are sometimes “lost” on the way to the official tallying places. Everything but a poll tax has been put in place to maintain the white and powerful status quo.
The reason usually given for these hindrances to voting is that there has been voting fraud—in poor and non-white districts only. The implication here is that of course the poor and non-white are not honest, and that the immigrants who make up this group either don’t understand democracy or want to destroy it. We have to protect the U.S. from immigrants, the poor, and the non-white, and so we must police voting very closely.
Evidence of massive and continual voting fraud is never presented, just as the hindrances already in place in underserved districts’ polling places are never acknowledged. Asking for a government photo ID is a blatant attempt to reinstate a racial and ethnic barrier to voting. Advocates say, Everyone has a driver’s license, so what’s the big deal? The only people who don’t have a driver’s license are illegal immigrants, and they shouldn’t be voting anyway. Those against the ID respond that many people don’t have a driver’s license, including many elderly people and some physically impaired people.
But the problem is not that photo IDs are not as common as we think. It’s that asking for anything but proof of registration—having your name on the list of voters for your polling place—is a poll tax. It’s a barrier to voting. It makes it harder for some citizens to vote, for no good reason. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say you have to have proof of citizenship to vote. You need that to register, and if you are registered, and your name is on the list at your polling place when you show up to vote, you do not have to show any further proof of your right to be there.
Once we demand proof of citizenship at the polling place, we may as well—and might well—ask for a small fee to be paid, or your photo to be taken, or your signature on a loyalty oath. This is not our democracy. We have to fight any attempt to require ID or any other proofs of citizenship or loyalty at the polling place vigorously, or our next Amendment will be a giant step backward from the previous five.