Columns » Ernest Dumas

Vote suppression's new form in Arkansas: the I.D.

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Arkansas has a long, sordid history of crooked elections and also of voter apathy, and it's impossible to know if one follows the other or if both just go with the geography and the culture.

So the Republican movement to suppress voting in the guise of election reform, which will be coming to the Capitol when the legislature convenes in January, might find an attentive audience — or not. Obviously, most people do not care since they do not bother to vote.

But if people did care very much they would be hostile to the idea. Arkansas already has about the lowest level of voting of all the states — Texas has the lowest and is striving for an even lower depth — so, unless it is to race Texas to the bottom, why would we want to discourage more people from voting?

I helped the late Justice Tom Glaze, a lifetime scourge of election fraud, write a book last year recounting his battles in the 1960s and 1970s to stop the perennial ballot thievery in a dozen or so counties and his efforts in the attorney general's office and the Supreme Court to perfect the laws that are supposed to guarantee an honest vote. I did a few appearances around the state to promote his book, Justice Glaze being too ill, and there were questions about whether Glaze's experiences ought to fortify the Republican campaign to require voters to have an official photo identification — typically a current passport or photo driver's license — before they can get a ballot.

If Glaze's suits in Conway and Searcy counties and elsewhere and the election code he wrote, which was partially enacted by the legislature in 1969, did not curb the abuses, a Republican legislator asked me, wouldn't requiring voters to have a photo ID stop a lot of illegal votes? The bill he described, which failed in 2011, will be introduced in January with a Republican majority in both houses.

In my humble and nonprofessional opinion, the legislature cannot constitutionally impose more requirements for voting beyond those in Amendment 51, which is that people meet the qualifications in the amendment and that they register. A voter's registration and right to vote can never be taken away unless she or he is convicted, dies, moves or fails persistently to vote. But the legislature can pass any law it wants and let the courts decide if it is legal.

The better answer to the question from a journalist whose legal opinion was worth nothing but who had followed elections at close hand for 50 years was that the photo ID would stop no voting fraud — none. A photo ID might stop someone from casting a vote for another registered voter who happened not to go to the polls that day but there is no history of that happening, at least on any scale that should worry us. There has never been even a serious suspicion that sizable numbers of people were pretending to be someone else — someone who had registered to vote but who would not be at the polls that day.

All the election fraud in the state's history — the casting of illegal ballots or the failure to count legal ones — was committed by election officials, not individual voters pretending to be someone else. It is committed by people who are in charge of the voting, counting and custody of ballots and, of course, the people who appoint or supervise them. If an election clerk is corruptible, even a photo ID will not prevent one illegal vote.

But throwing up new barriers to voting is not merely an empty gesture. It is baneful to democracy. The sponsors of such legislation sometimes are merely naïve, but the purpose is malevolent. It is to make it harder for certain people to vote. They are minorities, the poor, the disabled and elderly, those who are not apt to have a passport or even a driver's license. The state may furnish an alternate way to get a photo ID, either free or at a charge, but it nevertheless requires an effort beyond registering.

In this instance, "those people" tend to vote more often for Democrats than Republicans, although elderly voters in Arkansas and the rest of the South have shifted sharply to Republicans the past four years because of Barack Obama and the propaganda that he was taking away part of their Medicare help.

Courts blocked parts of Republican vote-suppression laws this fall in a few Southern states and elsewhere because they violated the Voting Rights Act by being aimed at restricting voting of certain groups, a violation of equal protection. The Republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court next year is apt to finally invalidate the provision of the Voting Rights Act that requires changes in voting laws to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department. It will say that states covered by the act — Arkansas is not among them — no longer discriminate.

By abolishing the poll tax and opening its primaries to black voters Arkansas had stopped official suppression shortly before the Voting Rights Act passed. Although unlike other Southern states Arkansas did not erect barriers like literacy tests, some of our work was just as ugly. After Reconstruction, we used beatings, threats and even murder to discourage voting by newly franchised blacks and investigations of fraud and, that failing, the simple expedient of taking the boxes of their ballots and throwing them in the river.

A photo ID card and shorter voting hours would demonstrate progress in the fight to suppress votes. We have found a more civilized way to do it.

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