Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Can I see some ID?

In the spirit of Election Day, I’d like to air some thoughts about American democracy. As a nation, we tout the ideals of the democratic process and the freedoms to speak as we wish about candidates, the freedom of the press to write articles and distribute news to the public that is not always complimentary about political candidates. We have access to many forms of information that allow us to make informed decisions about who we vote for and why. But even with this wealth of information and resources, there are still many Americans who do not vote. Why?

Sometimes, American citizens do not vote because they feel ambivalent for one reason or another. Perhaps they don’t support either candidate running for a particular office and would prefer not to vote at all. Or maybe they just have too many other things to do, and don’t feel they have the time to stop at the polls and wait in line to cast a vote. Or perhaps it’s for another reason entirely.

It’s interesting that as part of the process of elections in this country, there are barriers that the more privileged classes of Americans don’t think about when they think about elections. In order to vote, citizens have to register, which usually takes place through a county clerk’s office, and many times people can register at the time they get a driver’s license. That license actually enables you to vote, as many polling stations require a photo ID as a security measure. The state of Kentucky requires identification at polling stations, which can include “Driver’s license, Social Security card, credit card, or another form of ID containing both picture and signature."

Since the Department of Homeland Security initiated new measures to protect American citizens from threats of terror, the price for obtaining photo identification has gone up significantly. In the state of Kentucky prior to 9/11, an individual could obtain a drivers license or state-issued photo ID for around $8 (or $9 if you wanted to support organ donation). Now, the price is around $20, which may not be much for some people, but for those working in jobs paying only minimum wage with families to support, often relying on public transportation to get to and from those jobs, $20 is a lot of money.

My point is this: is American democracy truly as representative as we claim? Is the poorer segment of the American electorate underrepresented as a whole because of the different barriers we put up to “secure” the electoral process? Fairvote.org notes that “in reaction to the recent emphasis on election fraud, many states have passed or are considering legislation to require that voters produce both a picture ID and can prove that they are in fact citizens of the United States. However, such policies may have the effect of preventing otherwise eligible voters from voting.” Some individuals may not be able to afford photo IDs, for others it’s their inability to get to and from polling stations because of unreliable transport (public or private). For still others, they simply do not have the ability to take off from work in order to fulfill their civic duty. So how representative is this democratic government we support and tout worldwide?

Truly, voting is a privilege in this country, and it is one that should not be taken for granted. Minorities of all types face discrimination at the polls, both directly and indirectly. As Americans, we need to ask why someone isn’t voting; is it because of ambivalence toward the current campaign, or is it something more basic to an individual’s human rights and basic needs. There is often more at stake than we realize.

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