Who's afraid of the low-income vote?

Who's afraid of the low-income vote?

Two voter ID laws making their way through the state Legislature could end up keeping some of Illinois' poorest residents from exercising one of their basic democratic rights–voting. Come Election Day, voters would have to present a government-issued photo identification card at the polling place, if Senate Bill 2496, which was introduced last week, is ulimately approved by lawmakers. A similar measure--House Bill 3903 --was introduced in the lower chamber in December.

Most of us are surprised to hear that not everyone has a photo ID, but it's not always easy to get one. Illinois requires four original proofs of identification as well as a fixed application fee. If you were born at home or in a foreign country and don't have a birth certificate, only have three original proofs of ID or can't rustle up the money for the mandatory application fee, you're out of luck.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 11 percent of eligible voters, or roughly 23 million people, don’t have a government-issued photo ID. African Americans, the elderly and low-income people make up a disproportionate percentage of the ID-less ranks.

“Elected officials should be seeking ways to encourage more Americans to vote, not inventing discriminatory pretexts to deny eligible voters a chance to cast their ballots,” writes the American Civil Liberties Union, which is mounting a campaign to stop the bills currently making their way through the Illinois legislature.

Illinois wouldn't be the first state to pass more restrictive voter ID laws--14 states already require government-issued photo ID at the polls and 34 states introduced legislation related to voter ID in 2011. Opponents, like The Brennan Center, have called the measures a full-scale assault on the right to vote. Some have pointed out that the push for voter ID falls sharply along partisan lines.

In Illinois, SB 2496 was introduced by Republican state Sen. Kyle McCarter, and all 15 of the additional Senate sponsors are also Republicans. House bill 3903 has only one sponsor, Rep. Dwight Kay, who is also a Republican.

Proponents of such voting bills say their intentions is to stop voter fraud. How widespread such fraud is is up for debate. The Washington, D.C.-based think-tank Center for American Progress notes that the Justice Department only found 86 instances of improper voting between 2002 and 2005, a number they argue is negligible.

In 2008, then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama won the most diverse popular vote in history by a 6 point margin. With an estimated 25 percent of voting age African Americans without government-issued photo IDs, and 11 percent of the voting age population disenfranchised by laws like those on the table in Illinois, the vote of low-income communities could be decisive. Disenfranchising them wouldn't let us find out.

Photo credit: jugbo 

© Community Renewal Society 2012

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