10 States, 10 Million Voters, 10 Miles
How far away do you live from your local DMV, or other government-designated office? If you needed to obtain a license or other form of identification, how would you get to this office? And during what time of day would you go?
These are questions that are becoming increasingly important to American citizens, especially those currently living in 10 states that have enacted voter ID laws.
In 2011 alone, an unprecedented 34 states considered restrictive voting laws that may make it more difficult for American citizens to cast their votes. The most common of these changes has been laws requiring voters to present photo IDs at the polls – otherwise known as “voter ID” laws. To date, 10 states have enacted voter ID laws: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. More states, such as Minnesota and Iowa, are currently considering enacting such requirements.
But all is not well in this new world of voter ID. Thanks to lessons learned (not long ago) during the Jim Crow and pre-Civil Rights era, we already know the impact and injustice of enacting barriers to the polls, whether they be taxes or tests. We should be ashamed of having designed an electoral system that blocked the voices of people of color and other minority groups from being represented in structures of power, and moving forward, should be taking steps to expand access to the polls. But some legislators have forgotten these lessons, enacting voting barriers that many Americans may be unable to overcome once again.
A new study released this week shows that nearly 500,000 eligible voters in the 10 states with voter ID laws could face significant challenges in obtaining a photo ID required to vote. Conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, the study determined that in these states, more than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest state ID-issuing office open more than two days a week – and nearly 500,000 of those eligible voters do not have access to a vehicle. Many of the voters live in rural areas with limited public transportation options, or urban centers whose public transportation options are dwindling due to budget cuts. The burden of travel to these offices falls particularly hard on residents of Mississippi (35% live more than 10 miles away), Alabama (33%), and Wisconsin (30%).
These laws will disproportionately impact Americans already struggling to pay their bills. One million eligible voters living more than 10 miles from ID-issuing offices fall below the poverty line (that’s 10 percent of all those beyond 10 miles). These laws also disproportionately disenfranchise racial minorities. Nationally, a quarter of all African Americans and 16% of Hispanics lack photo IDs. What’s more, a significant 20% of all Americans over the age of 65 also currently lack the proper identification.
Even in terms of geographic proximity to ID offices, racial and age disparities remain. The new Brennan Center report identifies several rural areas which are also predominately racial minority communities. The large rural concentrations of black voters in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, for example, form what is called the Southern “black belt.” In 11 contiguous counties in Alabama portion of the “black belt,” nearly half of the 135,000 eligible voters are black. The black poverty rate is 41%. These factors combined make it one of the toughest regions in the country to obtain an ID, where the highest percentage of eligible voters need to do so in order to vote.
As Jews, we have a long history of fighting for fair and equal representation in governing bodies, whether at synagogue, Jewish legal bodies, or in our broader communities. As Jews as well as Americans, we must begin organizing and mobilizing our communities now before the election. As the Brennan Center’s report reveals, it may be particularly challenging for more than half a million eligible voters to have their vote counted this year. To start, congregations can organize ride-shares to help those without access to vehicles in their communities make it to DMVs or other photo ID-issuing offices. Most importantly, we can educate people to be prepared for changes at the polls.
Use our Voter Suppression Resource, available at the RAC’s Voting Information Center at www.rac.org/vote, to learn more about voting law changes in your state. Updated this month, the resource contains summaries of restrictive voting laws in 16 states (including the 10 with voter ID requirements).