Why not have a federal citizenship ID?

Published 10:28 am Friday, November 2, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

Ever since I can remember, an important lesson was drilled into me: As a citizen of the United States, I have the right and the responsibility to vote. This message was heard at home, at school, even at church. It seemed to me a universal message, absolute in its truth.

Though my mother never took me with her to the polling places where she voted, it was obvious what she and my father were doing on election days. They talked about the elections at home, openly discussing the issues and the candidates. Since they did not keep politics a secret, I even knew which political party they favored.

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As I grew up, what became clear over time is that this message actually wasn’t universally embraced. Elections came up from time to time in my circle of friends, when I was in college and afterwards, and it was clear that some of them were indifferent to voting. At least one of my friends from my early years, I suspect, still has never voted.

As I look over the ballot for next week’s election, I’m thinking that there’s another group who doesn’t accept the universal, absolute message about the right and responsibility to vote — the Republican sponsors of the voter ID amendment proposal.

Oh, I’ve heard the claims about protecting elections from fraud, but the amendment on next week’s ballot “uses a nuclear weapon to kill mosquitoes.” The number of cases of intentional fraud that would be blocked by this amendment is tiny, involving far less than one half of one percent of all votes cast in any recent election. Voter ID supporters seem to be obeying the principle that it’s OK for a thousand Minnesotans (or more) to struggle to exercise the right and responsibility to vote in order to keep a few from voting fraudulently.

Let me be blunt: I think that claims about the dangers of fraud are propaganda which mask the real motivations — suppressing voter turnout — that lie behind something that sounds so harmless. Everybody has a picture ID with their current address on it, right?

This amendment is bound up with at least one other issue that nobody seems to be talking about: Should there be a federal citizenship ID — a kind of internal passport — that we carry with us all the time?

I’m guessing most voters of any party, but especially of the Tea Party flavor, would rebel at that idea. But when you put voter ID and anti-immigrant laws together, how can we avoid that kind of ID requirement? Unless we’re going to slip into ethnic profiling, all of us are going to need photo IDs in order to prove we are citizens.

My hypothesis about why Republicans are willing to go it alone with a voter ID amendment, instead of working on election rules that all parties can agree are reasonable, is that party leaders foresee an endless series of close elections. They’ve given up trying to persuade those who don’t agree with them in favor of “solidifying the base” and making voting more difficult for the undesirables

Is it necessary to put voter ID into the Minnesota Constitution? No. Will it go into the Constitution? Probably. Will it make voting more difficult for thousands of qualified voters, and nearly impossible for more than a few? Yes. Will it cost local governments more to hold elections? Yes.

Voter ID requirements seem to have acquired a kind of inevitability across the country. So citizens — those not caught up in paranoia or a more insidious kind of fraud — need to pay attention to how the next Legislature comes up with the rules to implement this amendment. With Republicans victorious in their quest to interfere with election day procedures, it will be important for the rest of us to make sure that all of us can freely exercise our right and our responsibility to vote.

And remember to vote next Tuesday.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.