As thousands celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, the media re-aired black and white images of nonviolent Black Americans being tear gassed and clubbed on “Bloody Sunday” while marching for the right to vote. The images were, for many, faded memories of a bygone era.
That is, until a month later, when television focused the nation’s attention on another tragedy: Hurricane Katrina.
What we saw televised in New Orleans wasn’t just the result of a broken levee. It was the intersection of race and class, laying bare for the world to see how such factors can literally amount to life or death.
The striking nexus between Bloody Sunday and Hurricane Katrina is not simply that both events were televised, but rather what that coverage revealed. Katrina’s vulnerable, the Black and poor and politically disfranchised, who for generations had been pushed to the margins of society, were without the economic or other means to get out of harm’s way.
Today, a growing national trend of exploiting alleged fears of voter fraud threatens to hinder access to the ballot box, by requiring voters to present a photo ID that our nation’s most vulnerable — the poor, elderly and many racial minorities — are not likely to have the means to acquire.
The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and James Baker, recently recommended federal legislation requiring all voters to present a “Real ID” card in order to vote. To obtain this type of photo identification, documentary proof would be required of an individual’s full legal name and date of birth, Social Security number, primary address and citizenship.
Unfortunately, the commission’s “Real ID” recommendation is more draconian than any ID requirement adopted in any state to date, including Georgia’s recently enacted and widely criticized law, which Carter, ironically, has condemned as “discriminatory.”
Georgia’s voter identification bill is one of the strictest measures in the nation. Voters are required to present one of six government-issued photo identifications at the polls, a sharp reduction from the 17 previously allowed forms of identification, including bank statements and utility bills, which contain no photo. Georgia’s discriminatory photo ID law is presently being challenged in federal court.
Proponents of photo ID requirements argue that such measures are necessary to prevent fraud and to enhance confidence in election results. But the type of voter fraud addressed by photo ID requirements is extraordinarily small, and supporters of the photo ID measures have yet to make a convincing case that existing methods of discouraging and addressing fraud are insufficient.
While the antifraud benefits of photo ID measures are suspect, there is strong evidence that such requirements will reduce political participation by otherwise eligible rural, elderly, disabled, poor and racial minority voters, who are less likely to have photo identification or the means to acquire one.
Like the warnings about the capacity of New Orleans’ levees to withstand the force of a major hurricane, a photo ID requirement will predictably increase the ranks of the disfranchised.
Many who were left behind in New Orleans did not have access to a car, and thus are the least likely to possess a driver’s license. The hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Katrina may find it impossible to recover the identity papers they left behind or to obtain new records from government offices and hospitals whose records were destroyed. These citizens, and many like them across the country, will be politically disfranchised by the commission’s ID proposal, if enacted, and by photo ID requirements like Georgia’s.
Four decades after the Voting Rights Act’s passage, the Hurricane Katrina experience reminds us that the VRA is still necessary to protect our nation’s racial minorities and poor from voting laws that fail to recognize the impact of race and class in creating new barriers to the ballot.
Ryan Paul Haygood is assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York.