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Voter I.D. Laws in Black and White

July 24, 2012

Recently, I’ve been involved in some rather spirited exchanges about voter I.D. laws. Attorney General Eric Holder has compared voter I.D. laws to poll taxes, an assertion that has been met with much criticism.

Without getting into America’s long, sordid history of voter suppression, I’ve been struck by how unaware people are about government-issued photo I.D. possession–or lack thereof. Twenty-five percent of voter eligible African Americans, for example, lack proper photo I.D., compared to eight percent of white Americans. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, nearly 11 percent of all voter eligible Americans lack proper I.D. I’m not sure what the figures are in Baltimore, but 18 percent of voters in Philadelphia lack appropriate I.D. Shocking? It shouldn’t be. It may be hard to fathom how someone gets by without a photo I.D. but I’ve no idea how a family of four survives on $22,350 per year, either.

After I’ve bullied folks with my particularly brand of Hennessy-sipping, bourgeois angry Negro liberalism, they typically find a modicum of merit to my opposition to voter I.D. laws. To my surprise, some have pivoted, noting that a photo I.D. is a requirement for modern life or living in the digital age. But as Leonard Pitts points out here,

[W]hen you don’t have a checking account, a credit card or a car, it is less likely you will already have an ID.

Pitts quickly brings it back to voter suppression, writing,

In the last presidential election, only 63 percent of eligible voters voted — and that was the best showing in 48 years. Clearly, Americans are not overly enthusiastic about performing this civic duty as it is.

So if you can add a layer of difficulty to it that requires some voters to catch a bus down to some office, fill out forms and wait in line to get a card for which they will otherwise have zero use (emphasis is mine), is it so hard to imagine that some won’t bother, and that there will be enough of them to make a difference in a close race?

I’m actually less interested in ruminating about voter suppression than I am about a lack of “muscular empathy“–what Viral Mehta describes as being “objectively tenacious in seeking to understand another person’s reality”– particularly as it relates to the poor and low-income. There’s too little muscular empathy in the world and it corrupts our politics. While it may be difficult to imagine, millions inhabit an America where photo I.D.s hold little value and obtaining a checking account or credit card–let alone a house or car–is nothing more than a pipe dream.

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