Columns » Ernest Dumas

Voter suppression

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The history of voting in America and in our little corner of it has been the struggle to empower more and more people to have a say in how laws are made and are applied to them.

From propertied white men, the franchise was extended by increments to all men, including African Americans, and in 1920 to women, and then Congress and states removed the artificial barriers to voting by the unprivileged.

That was the trend until now. The other point of view — that too many people, or at least the wrong people, are voting — is ascendant. Next month, Arkansas will almost certainly join that march by changing its constitution to require people to leap another hurdle before they can vote. Even if every election official in the precinct knows them, they will need to present an official photo identification to get a ballot.

For most of us, that is no hurdle, but it is for many — by prevailing standards, the least consequential people among us. That is one reason I say voters almost certainly will adopt the new requirement Nov. 6.

The ballot question is Issue 2, the proposed voter ID law. Several Republican-controlled state legislatures have adopted such laws. Arkansas has been trying for four years, but the Arkansas constitution, which prohibits such voting barriers, has stood in the way. Issue 2 will take care of that by installing the photo ID in the constitution.

Photo IDs will do nothing to protect the sanctity of the ballot or to remedy Arkansas's and many other states' vile history of election fraud, about which volumes have been written, including "Waiting for the Cemetery Vote," which I penned with the late Tom Glaze.

That is because the photo ID laws are supposed to combat "voter fraud," not election fraud. Election fraud occurs when voting officials — sheriffs, county clerks, precinct officials and anyone else who may have control of ballot boxes and machines — manipulate the returns by destroying ballots, creating bogus ones, miscounting them or the scores of other schemes to produce a desired election result. Modern reforms like permanent registration, voting machines and joint primaries have ended most of the fraud, although the peril of online manipulation of voting results is growing.

Voter fraud, which Republicans promise that photo IDs will stop, is something else. There is no known history of its happening or at least on any measurable scale. It happens when an individual figures that some registered voter is not going to vote that day, goes to the voter's precinct, pretends to be that person, signs the person's voter affidavit and casts his ballot for him. He would have to match the voter's signature on the affidavit. He would have to figure that the precinct officials would not know either him or the real voter — in small precincts a virtual impossibility. If they did, he would not be allowed to vote and the prosecutor would be notified. Besides a candidate's brother-in-law, who would take that huge risk for the sake of casting one vote?

Requiring an official photo ID on top of having to match your affidavit signature is a deterrent to voting — not for you or me, who intend to vote come hell or high water, but for those for whom voting is already a burden. Those are the poor, mostly black, and the disabled and the elderly, for whom just getting to a polling place is an ordeal. Why bother?

Remember that Governor Hutchinson, who favors Issue 2, couldn't vote in May because he didn't have his driver's license, and a state trooper had to drive him to the Governor's Mansion to get it. Many people wouldn't have the luxury of time.

The legislature last year passed a photo ID statute and, although a circuit judge ruled this spring that it was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court allowed it to be used in the May and June primaries. The turnout, 312,000, was among the lowest in 50 years. It was 328,000 in the 1950 Democratic primary, when the poll tax still ruled.

The statute, which will be the enabling law once Issue 2 is adopted, allows people without a photo ID to cast a provisional ballot. They must step aside and sign an affidavit that they are who they say they are and will produce proof to the county election commission within a few days after the election — a scene most people would rather avoid. They must be warned that their affidavit is going to be turned over to the prosecuting attorney. But the law makes it clear that if the election commission — Republican-controlled at the moment — just doesn't want to count their provisional ballot, it won't. At the May primary, at least 250 ballots went uncounted.

Republican leaders have occasionally admitted that the ID laws are intended to depress Democratic turnout but they say Democrats would do the same if they could find such a remedy and were in charge. They are right.

In fact, vote suppression has mostly involved schemes perpetrated by Democrats, especially in the South. Jim Crow and all its voting constraints — white primaries, the poll tax, the Australian ballot and tests of literacy and civic knowledge — were Democratic artifices. As the state representative from Craighead County, Dr. Joe Meek, roared in 1888 when Jim Crow was being implemented: "The Caucasian race must govern America!"

African Americans got unfettered voting rights only upon the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court effectively quashed in 2013, clearing the way for photo ID laws. As the dynamics change, there will be more such ruses.

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