Voting in Texas and the bifurcation of civil rights

Those requirements [to show a photo ID], Justice Ginsburg wrote, “may prevent more than 600,000 registered Texas voters (about 4.5 percent of all registered voters) from voting in person for lack of compliant identification…A sharply disproportionate percentage of those voters are African-American or Hispanic,” she added, adding that “racial discrimination in elections in Texas is no mere historical artifact.”

— “Supreme Court Allows Texas to Use Strict Voter ID Law in Coming Election,” The New York Times (October 18, 2014)

“Anybody who looks at the data realizes that if the black vote, and the brown vote, doesn’t turn out, we can’t win. It’s just that simple,” said Representative Marcia L. Fudge [D] of Ohio, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, referring to African-American and Latino voters. “If we don’t turn out, we cannot hold the Senate.”

— “Black Vote Seen as Last Hope for Democrats to Hold Senate,” The New York Times (October 18, 2014)

The topic of disenfranchisement is important in Urban Education, at least at CUNY where I’m going to school. Disenfranchisement refers to the idea that a citizen loses his/her civil right to vote and thus to participate actively in democracy. Disenfranchisement can occur as a result of being incarcerated for a felony nowadays, but in the past it took place through poll taxes, literacy tests, and even the shamefully-termed White Primary law in Texas in the 1920s (which is just what you guessed it is: non-White people were not allowed to vote in primaries). These strategies typically blocked low-status voters from the ballot box, either through direct racial discrimination or indirectly as low-income voters (who were more often than not non-White) could not pay whatever fine or cost of transportation involved in meeting the voting requirements.

It seems that “racially discriminatory voter disenfranchisement” is still alive and well in the U.S. today, again taking place in Texas (see Truthout’s article from today). Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure Texas is great for lots of things, but for voting rights, they haven’t learned from their own history (or perhaps don’t care). What is particularly upsetting is the fact that the Supreme Court upheld the law that requires voters to show an ID, which evidently may put an undue economic burden on some of the 600,000 voters in the state (some have to take off from work and travel hours to get this documentation, not to mention the cost of the documents themselves) and block them from voting, which the lower court whose decision was overturned by the Supreme Court called “unconstitutional” and “discriminatory.” Other states in contrast permit gun licenses, student IDs, military IDs, bank statements, paychecks, even utility bills as proof of the ability to vote.

If losing this right doesn’t bother you – perhaps because you don’t do it yourself or because you think it won’t change anything, anyway – you might question whether this is such a big deal. (Also, if you’re hoping the Republicans win the Senate this November, you have your fingers crossed that other people share this perspective.) But even a few votes can change an election (like George Bush winning Florida by a mere 537 votes to take the presidency in 2000), and elected officials obviously have great power over the major governmental decisions that impact our lives, like tax policy, school funding, and whether we go to war.

There’s also a philosophical point to this that I discovered in reading about this issue. I learned that civil rights – the term under which the right to vote is subsumed – were originally divided into civil rights and political rights up until the mid-1950s. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that the concept of civil rights originally referred to “the rights to own property, make and enforce contracts, receive due process of law, and worship one’s religion [as well as] freedom of speech and the press.” In contrast, political rights meant “the right to hold public office, vote, or to testify in court…[which were] reserved to adult males.” (my emphasis) The ideology behind this was that certain of our population (women, for example) were considered citizens but could not participate politically that others could (in the case of women, the presumption was that men could represent their wives in the political forum; it was also commonly believed that women were not interested in politics).

So what does this mean today? In the case of Texas, it means that we’re reverting back to an old standard of citizenship which is bifurcated through an unequal distribution of political rights. This has dangerous philosophical and moral implications. What other political rights can we cherry-pick if this one is taken from some of our citizens, through an unnecessary measure (read the Brenner Center for Justice at NYC School of Law’s study that shows that intentional illegal voting activity occurs in only 31 out of 1 billion votes cast), especially if such a measure works to deny rights to certain citizens based on race or class or both?

The Supreme Court argues that it’s too close to the November midterm elections to make any substantial changes to the law as it is and doing so will only cause ripples and confusion. The voices of 600,000 members of our country should be held as more important than cries of inconvenience, however. It’s our civil duty to rethink our priorities.


One thought on “Voting in Texas and the bifurcation of civil rights

  1. This situation is definitely disturbing. Oddly enough, the last time I voted (in Massachusetts) I didn’t need to show any identification at all. Maybe it’s time to standardize voting procedures across the country. Also disturbing is the recent redrawing of congressional districts in certain states, a practice which virtually guarantees that power in those areas will stay in the hands of one party. I think we need to reconsider a lot of aspects of our voting system; eliminating the electoral college altogether would be a good start.


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