Some 30 state legislatures passed laws that can limit people’s right to vote. It sounds ridiculous that elected legislatures and not some foreign dictator could be curtailing Americans’ voting rights, but looking more deeply, we see what this is about.
I often look to history to see where we are as a culture. I like the perspective of looking at issues over time and looking for underlying meanings. I am a social studies teacher, and I am familiar with a number of cultures, time periods and issues. Often something is going on beyond what appears on the surface.
When I look at civilizations I see an interesting pattern. In most of them, after a period of radical change in social or political structure, many people desire a return to an earlier time before the change. It is often expressed as a return to a “Golden Age” or a “return to our original values,” but it is an inevitable pattern in all civilizations. This is going on in our culture now, and it is largely unacknowledged. In this world of polls and sound bites we rarely go beyond the surface to look at a deeper picture, but it is there.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the new photo ID/voting registration changes in some 30 states. What these changes have in common is they make voting harder for particular American citizens. Think about that for a minute; some 30 state legislatures passed laws that can limit people’s right to vote. It sounds ridiculous that elected legislatures and not some foreign dictator could be curtailing Americans’ voting rights, but looking more deeply, we see what this is about.
Before the 1960s many of the things we now accept as normal had not happened. African-Americans and other minorities were not the political forces they are today; many of them could not vote and were held back by legal discrimination. The involvement of women in politics had not happened; large numbers of women were neither in college nor working outside the home. The counter-culture had not happened; young people were manageable, and they did not challenge authority as they did in the late 1960s. In addition, non-white immigration and the birth rates of non-whites had not yet climbed, and the birth rate for whites had not yet declined.
In short, for many people, but by no means everyone, this was an “ideal time.” The GI Bill sent men to college, new production and industry led to economic boom and technological growth, the suburbs were growing, and people now had their cars, jobs, homes and lawns. The 1950s were the best of times for many people, and they want this back.
If you look at the new voting laws in this context, it becomes clearer. The Pa. photo ID law affects mostly people from formerly powerless groups: urbanites, minorities, young people and some women. If you are a member of one of these groups and you do not already have approved ID, such as a driver’s license, the process of getting the approved ID is confusing, time consuming, and difficult.
Go to the PennDot website and look at the steps one has to go through to apply for a photo ID; it is not easy. You may need a birth certificate, but if you are from another state, have married and/or were divorced, that can become more complicated. Looking at the PDF documents on that website, you see that even if you have seemingly valid ID, there can still be complications. School photo IDs are valid only if from an accredited school AND with an expiration date. If you have military ID, there are requirements that could make that ID unacceptable. And so it is with every category; there are many precise things you have to comply with to apply for the photo ID.
Behind all of these changes is ALEC, the extremely conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. Composed largely of white males and funded by corporations such as AT&T, ALEC produced templates for voting law changes as early as 2006. When Republicans came into power in many states in 2010, those legislatures produced laws based on ALEC’s template. Pa.’s law, for example, is almost identical in wording and layout to the laws of six other states. The Pa. voter ID law is part of an overall Republican plan.
The stated reason for these changes is to limit vote fraud, but when he was attorney general of Pa., Governor Corbett brought no cases of vote fraud.
In fact, most frauds that have been found are frauds photo ID would not have prevented. In my view, fraud is not the reason for the laws. Limiting the vote and re-living the 1950s is.
We are at a point where Americans could be saying that it is OK to put limits on the most fundamental aspect of American citizenship. It is not often expressed in that way, but that is what is at stake. If we allow these changes in law to stand, then we are saying, “1950s America had it right; that is the America I want.”
For me that is a frightening thought. Without realizing it, we are running the risk of giving away some of what it means to be American. And once rights are given away, they are almost impossible to get back.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident and a social studies teacher.
Editor’s note: The Committee of Seventy has done much to cut through the confusion surrounding the voter ID law.