1. Opinion

Blumner: Misjudging voter ID laws

There is so little truth-telling by conservatives about their real impetus behind strict voter ID requirements that any morsel feels like a gift.

Thank you, Judge Richard Posner, for being honest.

Posner is an influential Reagan-appointed, conservative federal appeals judge in Chicago who just declared in a new book and public comments that he was wrong to uphold Indiana's voter identification law that requires voters to prove their identity with a photo ID.

Posner says that he now sees the law is viewed as "a means of voter suppression rather than fraud prevention."

Indiana's strict voter ID law should have been struck down, he admits. Okay, a little late, but wow.

Posner, who wrote the 2007 opinion in Crawford vs. Marion County Election Board, attributes his misstep to an incomplete record of how ID requirements burden poor, minority voters. (The ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court the next year and has been used by states to defend strict voter ID requirements.)

Since then, the record is more fully formed. Thirty-four largely Republican-controlled states have voter ID requirements, though not all have been implemented, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The justification is always the same: "voter fraud," a problem that is more of an unfounded allegation than reality. The Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks the issue closely, calls voter fraud where someone actually shows up and votes illegally a "myth." It virtually never occurs. There are hardly ever prosecutions for illegal voting.

But voter ID laws are a real menace to poor and minority voters. Fully 11 percent of Americans don't have a government-issued photo ID, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. That's more than 21 million potential voters. The last presidential election was decided by 3.3 million votes.

Attorney General Eric Holder has it about right when he calls these requirements the new poll taxes in the way they block poor minorities from voting. The Justice Department is doing what it can to protect voting rights after conservatives on the Supreme Court gutted the chief enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act in June. It is challenging voter ID schemes in Texas and North Carolina.

To get a sense of how cynical these ID requirements are, in Texas, student identification cards can't be used to vote but gun permits can. In North Carolina, a driver's license is valid ID but not a government-issued ID for social services. Meanwhile, black households in the state are three times more likely than white households to have no access to a vehicle and no need for a driver's license.

It is a desperate, illegal strategy to win elections by boosting the relative voting strength of white, rural Americans — often conservative voters — as the United States gets more diverse.

The latest distasteful twist comes out of the Republican-dominated states of Arizona and Kansas, which are now insisting on proof of citizenship to vote. In a tactic that echoes the voter suppression of the Jim Crow era, voters in these states who don't have proper documentation such as a birth certificate, passport or naturalization papers won't be able to register for state and local elections. Voting in federal elections won't require the added proof, just a citizenship affirmation, as usual.

It is hard to fathom a more blatant assault on democracy than a two-tiered voting system reminiscent of those Southern states that retained poll taxes for their own elections when courts struck down their application to federal elections.

In Kansas, more than 18,000 voters have had their registrations suspended until they supply proper citizenship ID, about a third of registrations this year, according to the New York Times.

This is what happens when one political party decides it only really represents a slice of the American electorate. Targeted voting obstruction is a serious national problem that can thwart popular will in elections. It will get worse if the courts don't stop it.

We need more judges to come to Posner's late conclusion to make elections fair again.