My Grandmother, Voter ID and the Federal Courts

The following op-ed originally appeared in NC Policy Watch, written by NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina Executive Director Tara Romano.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago at age 96, she was renting an apartment, had a bank account, and was generally able to get around on her own for the most part, although she did have regular visits with a variety of medical professionals.

Oh, and, one other thing: she was still voting.

Coming from an immigrant working class family that had settled in a small city in Pennsylvania, she also never learned to drive – meaning she did not have a drivers’ license, ever. Judging by some reactions to last week’s 4th Circuit Court ruling that struck down North Carolina’s voter ID law, the fact that she did not have this form of government ID surely must have meant she eked out some shadowy existence, never able to access even the most basic of services afforded to American citizens.

No. My grandmother, while living a very simple life, managed to get around just fine. She had forms of identification, like a Social Security card and a Medicare benefits card. (She may have even had some type of photo ID, but as a factory worker with no military connections, it’s hard to imagine what that might have been.)

But while it’s true she didn’t have THE form of identification, she was still able to prove who she said she was with other documents. So when registering to vote, or signing a lease, or seeing a new doctor for the first time, she managed. Perhaps she was asked for a DMV license as the default option, but upon realizing that she didn’t have that, the doctor’s office, the bank, etc… worked with her to validate her identify using other documents. That’s a key point that seems to be lost in this argument around North Carolina’s law – it’s not that you needed photo ID to vote in North Carolina; it’s that you needed a very specific form of photo ID. And according to the judges on the 4th Circuit Court, the lawmakers who crafted the law chose this form of ID specifically because certain groups of people did NOT have it.

Yes, it’s true you also need a very specific form of photo ID to board a plane or to buy alcohol. But my grandmother never did either one of those things and there are plenty of people in this country who do not get on planes; tickets are expensive. And many people don’t drink alcohol, or for that matter, ever buy Sudafed.

But of course, buying a plane ticket or Sudafed are not fundamental rights of citizenship. Voting, on the other hand, is a protected constitutional right that is embedded in our nation’s founding documents. Those other activities may be a part of some people’s daily lives, but they’re not on the same level as voting.

Given that the 2013 law did so much more to restrict voting than just requiring a specific form of voter ID, it should be noted at this point that the debate over ID is a bit of a strawman. Not only did the court find that some lawmakers chose the ID requirement because of its power to exclude, it concluded that they eliminated other voter supports – like same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and a week of early voting – based specifically on who used them. Meanwhile, lawmakers claiming to be concerned about voter fraud made it easier to cast absentee ballots – again, seemingly based solely on who was most likely to use them – despite studies showing this voting method to be more vulnerable to fraud (although there is still not very much documented individual voter fraud).

The 4th Circuit Court found strong evidence of intent to discriminate in this law, which is a high bar to surmount. The only voter fraud the Court saw was an attempt to keep certain groups of people from voting.

The court’s ruling was, in short, a proud day for America. It was a day on which the third branch of government reaffirmed the truth that our founding documents must still override our polarized differences and rancorous political discourse. As the court made plain, our nation made a promise to treat all citizens of this country equally, and it made that promise because of what the founders had seen as disparate and unfair treatment in the countries they came from. Our founders wanted to build something better than that. My grandmother would have understood and approved.

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