Voter ID laws: Changing the message


By Benita Hussain, JAWS Fellow

Keesha Gaskins, Senior Counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, is concerned about this year’s Presidential election.  Leading the Brennan Center’s Democracy program, Gaskins has been fighting the voter registration restrictions that have swept through 25 states since 2011, a legislative wave that she believes undermines election integrity due to their suppression of certain classes of voters–not to mention the culture of partisanship that’s created that wave.

She was also the JAWS 2012 Shanahan Keynote Speaker on October 28, 2012, explaining to campers how voting ID requirements end up excluding underserved communities, how these laws have misinformed the public about voter fraud, and how journalists can help correct that message.

“Voting fraud is the monster under the bed of U.S. democracy,” Gaskin says.  Couched by most of the laws’ supporters as a way of keeping elections fair–despite the fact that the Brennan Center and the normally-oppositional Heritage Foundation find that voter theft is a minimal threat to elections–many voters still fear the possibility, no matter how statistically unfounded it might be.

What the public should fear, Gaskins continues, is the effect that these ID laws actually have:  the suppression of votes by people of color, the poor, veterans, the disabled and the elderly–those that also traditionally vote Democratic.

Because under most ID restrictions, identification is limited to drivers’ licenses, passports or proof of citizenship (or some combination of these), these laws in effect create burdens on voters who would require arduous travel, finding child care and/or leave from work to have a valid ID issued.  Additionally, many of these restrictions are inconsistent across counties within the same state, often creating inconsistent enforcement at polling stations.

Worse, she says, is that many voters don’t know their rights at the polls due to that inconsistency or from misinformation or from when they feel intimidated by the burgeoning class of poll activists, including the Tea Party’s True the Vote, who are there to “enforce” these voting restrictions.

Even though a growing number of county and state legislatures are attempting to pass voter restrictions (including ones that go beyond just photo ID requirements), citizens, local courts and the U.S. Department of Justice have blocked or weakened many of these measures by proving how these restrictions are both divisive and violative of federal voting rights laws.

And this is also where journalists come in.  When asked what she believes are the most important election stories, Gaskins named a few.  She would love to see stories that inform the general public and local readers about the voting requirements at their polls as well as voters’ rights, which include challenging improper enforcement of those regulations, and which should be found within the state or municipal governments websites.

She would also love to see stories about how partisan challengers have become so well-organized and -funded since the last Presidential election (in part, she believes, out of Tea Party fears of President Obama’s re-election) that they actually lead to voter misrepresentation, versus the skewed message that identity theft is a real threat to elections.

Third, she asked that Campers take off their writing hats and join non-partisan polling supporters, like Election Protection, to help balance this out and to help the “marketplace of ideas” thrive.

Ultimately, these voting restriction laws, Gaskins says, need to be presented as a values question.

“Are we concerned about a caste of people voting when they shouldn’t?” she asks.  “Or should we be concerned about a class of people being excluded?”

For additional information about Gaskins’ work and for the slides that she presented at her talk, visit The Brennan Center.