Just two months after overwhelmingly passing the Voting Rights Act Reauthorization of 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives recently reversed its commitment to ensuring the right to vote for all.
Under legislation passed recently, the House wants U.S. citizens to show proof of their citizenship to vote and then show photo I.D. when they cast their ballots. Introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the bill, entitled the Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006 (H.R. 4844), passed the House by a vote of 228 to 195. In the process, lawmakers are threatening to disenfranchise thousands of elderly, poor and minority Americans by burdening them with costly and inconvenient requirements.
Only a quarter of eligible voters have passports, which cost $97 to obtain, and naturalization papers used to prove citizenship cost $210 to be replaced. An estimated 6 to 12 percent of voters do not have government-issued photo identification, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
People of color, people with disabilities, the elderly, young and people who live in poverty are among the groups least likely to have documents proving their citizenship. In certain parts of the United States, elderly African Americans and many Native Americans were born at home, under the care of midwives, and do not possess birth certificates.
According to a University of Wisconsin study from June 2005, 23 percent of persons aged 65 and older in that state did not have driver's licenses or photo identification. It also found that less than half of African American men in Milwaukee County had valid driver's licenses.
H.R. 4844, while appealing on the surface, poses one of the greatest threats to fair and equal voting rights today. We should focus on encouraging full participation of our citizenry, not find new ways to hinder the precious right to vote. While it would be great if all citizens had documents such as a passport or a birth certificate readily available, the truth is that many do not, which means that they would have to pay for them in order to vote.
Four states — Georgia, Missouri, Indiana and Arizona — have enacted laws requiring photo ID to vote. In two of those states, federal courts have struck them down as unconstitutional. In 2005, a federal judge in Georgia characterized the requirement as a poll tax. I can't agree more: It's a 21st-century poll tax.
The bill's proponents maintain they're trying to crack down on voting fraud. But I would say they are perpetuating the greatest fraud of all — they're trying to prevent eligible Americans from exercising their most sacred and important civil right.
Falsely claiming citizenship and voting fraudulently have long been federal offenses. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Americans are as likely to commit election fraud as they are getting killed by lightning. Since October 2002, a total of 86 U.S. residents have been convicted of federal election fraud, while nearly 197,000,000 ballots have been cast in general elections.
In Ohio, a statewide survey found four instances of ineligible persons voting or attempting to vote in 2002 and 2004, out of 9,078,728 votes cast — a rate of 0.00004 percent. Cathy Cox, the secretary of state for Georgia, has admitted that she could not recall one documented case of voter impersonation at the polls during her nine years as the state's top election official. It is obvious that our current laws against voting fraud work when properly enforced.
Even if voters have valid ID, many eligible voters will be turned away because H.R. 4844 would place an inordinate amount of discretion in the hands of overworked and sometimes poorly trained poll workers. Deciding whether a voter matches or does not match the photo in an ID card — which can be many years old — is a very subjective process and prone to mistakes.
What U.S. House members want to demand of Americans is far more than what is required of them to run for office. All most congressional candidates have to do when declaring their candidacy is sign a pledge that they are U.S. citizens — much like what voters sign when registering to vote.
Shouldn't Congress be a little more worried about the state of electronic voting machines? It seems to me that they're the cause of more voting irregularities than individual voting fraud.
With midterm elections approaching, I can only surmise that House lawmakers are trying to improve their political prospects with constituents concerned with illegal immigration. Instead of producing viable immigration reform, the U.S. House decided to try to crack down on the few illegal aliens who might be voting in federal elections.
Now that's not what I consider government efficiency.
Marc H. Morial is president of the National Urban League.