Voter ID Laws & The Limits of Democracy

Posted on August 13, 2013 by


Well, that didn’t take long, did it?

This evening, Gov. Pat McCrory (R-NC) signed one of the most extensive voter identification laws in the United States. North Carolinians must now show a government–issued photo i.d. to vote. The act also shortens the early voting period from 17 days to 10, and it eliminates voter registration on election day.

Why does all of this matter? North Carolina is no longer covered, by definition, by the Voting Rights Act (1965).

The V.R.A. was written so that African-Americans in particular would have an unfettered access to voting rights. The Act makes voting discrimination based on race or color illegal. It also required particular states and localities to clear electoral changes (redistricting or changes in voter registration, for example) with the Department of Justice or a federal court. Since not all states needed to get such clearance, determining which states or localities must do so was a critical question. The Act used two factors. (1) If states had a recent history of voter discrimination based on race (literacy tests, poll taxes, white primaries) AND (2) low voter participation, defined either as voting or registration rates below 50 percent.

To determine these rates, Congress relied, primarily, on, most recently, 1970 U.S. Census, which means that states like Alabama were still covered by the law even though now African-Americans in Alabama participate at rates roughly equivalent to whites in the state. In essence, southern states were forced to jump through more obstacles based on data more than 40 years old.

On June 25, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down this formula for determining which states are covered (other elements of the law remain untouched), ruling that relying on such a dated data, Congress is acting unreasonably and is unnecessarily contravening electoral powers generally reserved to states.

So, North Carolina is now free, at least for now, to change its electoral laws without federal oversight so long as those laws do not discriminate on the basis of race or color. Unsurprisingly, civil rights groups are threatening to challenge the statute. They believe it will limit minority voters. Republicans see these measures as combating voter fraud. It is possible, of course, that both are correct for those outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

This is really the beginning of a long, hard struggle between the two major parties. The heart of the struggle is not about race or fraud, but the extent of our democracy. The conventional wisdom is that the GOP benefits from low turnout elections, while Democrats want a maximized electorate. Of course, there are economic and demographic factors at play here, but the two parties have differing perspectives of the vote, whether they admit it or not.

Personally, I think we have too few obstacles to voting. We should require people to vote in person except for the most unusual circumstances (documented health restrictions or military service). Even more importantly, and though it will never happen due to our democratic conceptions, I support a modified literacy test for voting, one that resembles a basic citizenship examination (here is one example) equally applied to everyone. As we have expanded the franchise over the past one hundred years, our political system has changed significantly, likely as a result. Let me be clear–I am not opposed to those expansions. I do not think our voting should be limited based on gender, race, or age (those 18 or over), but we should limit based on civic knowledge. Restricting voting based on race seems not only irrational, but immoral, while doing so based on what we know seems not only rational, but prudent, so long as the test is fair.

What do you think?