Voting Identification Mysteries

ACORN Community Organizing Ideas and Issues

New Orleans    Our children know a thing or two about voting. A rite of passage in their voter enfranchisement in New Orleans would be accompanying their parents to the polls, particularly their mother, who was infamous with the local poll watchers. It would all start smoothly enough. We would take our place in line. We would get to the front and be presented the book to sign in several places and one of the gnarled and wizened parish sinecures would casually look over their donuts or Popeyes chicken and by rote ask us for our identification. With any luck we, because the children quickly caught on as they were able to vote, muscled ahead of their mother in line, so that we could show our drivers license, jump in the booth, and fire away.

When their mother hit the line, she would calmly and gracefully refuse to show any identification whatsoever, insisting once asked that it was not a legal requirement and was in fact illegal for the question to be demanded in Louisiana. Fur would then begin to fly! Supervisors would be summoned and calls would be made “downtown.” Inevitably, their mother would win, since she in fact knew the law and ACORN had campaigned for it hard, but it would take a lot of time and trouble before eventually they produced an affidavit for her to sign attesting to her identification and accepted her ballot. Over the years after HAVA, the Help America Vote Act, was passed in 2002, the poll supervisors and even some of the workers would recognize their mother and immediately start digging for the paperwork. We all just accepted the fact that voting was a struggle and not a simple matter. Numerous strategies were also created to insure that we all voted separately if at all possible!

In the wake of the 2004 election various states, led by the Florida’s and Ohio’s where so much election mess occurred, saw the passage of sometimes difficult requirements supposedly to protect the purity of the ballot. Many of these have now been struck down by various courts as disenfranchising voters, but at the least we walk into the coming election in something close to chaos about what rights are real in terms of identification.

Most states still keep it simple because many, though sadly not all states, are not really trying to suppress participation and new voters, and only require first time voters to have photo ID if they had not shown such ID when registering. Other states have been like our friends in Missouri and tried to twist and trick new voters in order to convince them not to bother.

Voter suppression is not that hard if you push to cut off the new voter from the very beginning of their experience with the ballot. First time voters generally tend to vote more enthusiastically than the rest of the jaded citizenry, so if the Missouri’s, Florida’s, Indiana’s, and Ohio’s of the country get the confusion machine going and the weird and wacky mailings out to people, it may not take much to turn off the new voters right from the beginning, and with any luck that strategy may discourage them from bothering again.

Our children know it’s not just a citizen’s obligation to vote but a matter of family duty, even loyalty, to vote, but working and studying at great distances from their home in New Orleans I can easily hear their frustrations about the absentee procedures. They rail in our modern, computerized age at the requirements to fax their requests back and forth, and finally they feel almost total frustration since they believe that their absentee ballots will not even bother to be counted unless it is close or really matters.

ACORN registered about 550,000 new voters this round. Nonetheless, fighting all of the efforts in this close 2006 series of elections to beat back the vote in so many places, trick and treat policies about sketchy identification schemes, and so many other suppression tactics, sometimes I am not confident that the arguments I have made to the younger voters in our family about how it all really matters are as true and certain as I want them to believe.

Oh, and darned if I didn’t see a map last week saying Louisiana voters must show an ID — and I’m betting that is just not true this time any more than it has been in the past number of elections, and I know at least one person that will be in our polling place proving the point!

November 5, 2006