Voter ID is the latest in a history of exclusion
by Melanie Ford
Zenith City Weekly
epublicans are pushing for laws—or, as in Minnesota, a constitutional amendment—requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls to prove who they are.
Millions of people in poverty, with disabilities, too old to drive, or who otherwise don’t have a current photo ID will not be able to vote. These are the very people who have traditionally faced barriers at election time, especially people of color.
America has a long history of trying to keep the democratic process in the hands of affluent White men. Colonial governments made their own laws regarding voter eligibility. There were places where Black men could vote and some where women could. Some colonies only allowed Protestants to vote; others only allowed White men who owned property.
The U.S. Constitution, its framers unable to agree on a national standard, left eligibility requirements to the states. Many (though not all) abolished voting rights for women and people of color. For purposes of representation in Congress, Blacks were considered three–fifths of a person and American Indians were not citizens.
After the Mexican American War in the mid–1800s, Mexicans gained a treaty right to vote if they lived in an annexed territory. Jurisdictions quickly enacted poll taxes and property ownership requirements to keep them from voting. Many who attempted were met with beatings, burnings, and lynchings.
The Fourteenth Amendment granted "full" citizenship to every person born or naturalized in the U.S. and abolished the three–fifths status of Black people—but only Whites could be naturalized citizens.
In 1887, Native Americans were allowed to become citizens if they gave up their tribal affiliation. They weren’t granted automatic citizenship until 1924.
In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was finally approved by all states: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
Black Americans began voting in great numbers and gained seats in government, but, as happened when Mexicans gained the vote, the White establishment could not accept non–Whites ascending to power.
Newly freed slaves weren’t the only targets. The Gold Rush brought immigrants from Asia. They could not be naturalized, but their U.S.–born children were citizens. Attempting to keep Asian babies from being born on U.S. soil, "exclusion acts" were passed to prevent Asian women from immigrating.
States began enacting new laws to keep people of color from voting. Complicated written instructions and literacy tests were common, but the children of former slaves and non–White immigrants were sent to segregated schools where they were not taught to read.
Poll taxes kept out former slaves and first–generation Americans who could not afford to pay. Those that made it through theses barriers were subjected to intimidation. Some found polls closed or couldn’t find the polling place at all.
It wasn’t until the civil rights movement that Congress seriously attempted to curtail states’ ability to disenfranchise non–White voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited literacy tests, poll taxes, and complicated ballot boxes. A 1970 amendment required states to provide language assistance to non–English proficient voters.
This enabled more people to vote, so new ways were found to keep people of color from the polls. Some states purged voting rolls in districts with a large minority population, so when a voter showed up, his or her name wasn’t on the list of eligible voters.
In Minnesota, then–Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer (now a Republican state legislator from Big Lake) directed that tribal ID cards couldn’t be used for voter identification by those not living on reservations.
Another tactic is "voter caging." In New Jersey, the Republican National Committee sent bulk mailings to largely Hispanic and African–American districts with a request that they be returned if undeliverable. A list was made from over 45,000 returned cards. When someone on the list tried to vote, GOP poll watchers challenged them. More recently, foreclosed property lists have been used to challenge residency.
Laws that restrict or permanently deny the vote to those convicted of a crime are seemingly race–neutral, but effectively bar more men of color from voting because they are arrested, charged, and convicted at much higher rates than White men.
After 250 years of purposeful elimination from a participatory democracy, it is easy to see why voter identification laws are criticized as racist.
Melanie Ford is a lawyer in Duluth. She is on the Board of Directors of Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, Inc. and a community representative on the steering committee of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.