When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many Americans were proud to witness the passage of this landmark legislation outlawing the discriminatory voting practices that had long been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the United States.
After years of racial intimidation, threats, beatings and even deaths, the right to vote without discrimination had finally become a fundamental one by law for all citizens, and the federal government would — if necessary — enforce this right.
Flash forward to the year 2012, where the right to vote for countless citizens appears to be under attack again — this time through the use of more sophisticated methods that may seem reasonable on the surface but actually create barriers to voting for many Americans, especially the elderly.
I am referring to recent voter ID legislation passed in a number of states that basically require all voting age citizens to show a current, government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license, when they arrive at their respective polling places in order to cast their votes on election day.
The Pennsylvania voter ID law, signed just this year, goes into effect in November and could disenfranchise nearly 10 percent of the state's voters.
According to data released by state election officials earlier this month, more than 750,000 registered Pennsylvanian voters do not have the type of photo ID now required in order to cast a ballot in the next elections — many for perfectly legitimate reasons.
The more facts I uncover regarding the new law, the more I cannot help wondering why the state legislature did not at least exempt senior citizens from it.
Many senior citizens, some age 90 and older, have expired drivers licenses since they no longer drive. Yet even though they may have voted legally in numerous past elections, they would still be required under Pennsylvania law to obtain some other current form of government-issued photo identification, otherwise they could lose their right to vote. This is an especially grim prospect in 2012 to someone who may have experienced voter-suppression during the turbulent Civil Rights era prior to passage of the Voting Rights Act. If you are elderly and do not possess a birth certificate or have one on record, then you might also have to jump through any number of legal hoops before you are able to obtain the documentation necessary to acquire a government-issued photo ID.
Heaven forbid that you are someone of any age who has had their birth certificate or other vital documents destroyed by fire, or if you have been married and changed your last name more than once.
Suddenly, one costly legal barrier after another may be standing in the way of your fundamental right to vote, likely through no fault of your own.
Proponents of the new law might believe that securing an ID is simple because the state will issue them free of charge — yet this does not take into account the fact that the cost for documentation required to obtain a government-issued photo ID could be more than voters in need can afford.
This is tantamount to a poll tax, which is illegal and poses an undue burden for those on a fixed income, thereby affecting many elderly Americans.
By now, we should be encouraging full voter participation in elections, not making voting less accessible to citizens.
Currently, lawyers on both sides of the Pennsylvania Voter ID law are arguing their cases in Commonwealth Court. The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to stop the new law from taking effect during this November's election. A decision on the law's validity is expected by mid-August.
New voter ID requirements would make sense if voter fraud were rampant in the United States, but according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, voter fraud is extremely rare and is often conflated with other forms of election misconduct. So these laws appear to offer a “solution” where there is no problem.
As the older generation would say: “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
Erin King is a senior majoring in film and video, and she also serves as the political action committee chair for the Student Black Caucus. Erin is The Daily Collegian’s Monday columnist. Email her at email@example.com