As Voter ID law opponents continue to push back against the voter suppression strategy in the courts with mixed results, it has been a hard sell in the political war to win over hearts and minds. And with so much focus on the very obvious civil rights arguments repeatedly stressed in the drawn out legal battles over Voter ID, it remains unclear if that narrative works when translated for consumption by the larger public domain.
That’s becoming problematic for Black voters.
“Yes, there is a pattern heading into 2016,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) tells the Tribune. “While voter disenfranchisement is nothing new, this is a new iteration of it that we’re very worried about. Most just don’t understand the impact.”
Implementation of Voter ID laws, as well as state and local propagation of voter suppression tactics, have already become a drain on already cash-strapped government coffers. To date, Texas has already spent $8 million defending its controversial Voter ID law.
“Feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth?” argues Texas political blogger Charles Kuffner. “[I]f the state had been a bit more generous with allowed IDs, both providing them and legislating them, they could have spent a lot less on the lawyers defending the law.”
Between 2007 and 2010, Indiana spent nearly $11 million on producing free identification cards, not including the nearly $3 million spent on voter education and awareness. Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union that also has the country’s largest Black population, spent more than $200,000 on voter outreach on its Voter ID laws. Kansas, which just had its Voter ID law appeal rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, spent more than $300,000 on a Voter ID law website.
By 2012, Virginia ended up paying in excess of $1.4 million for Voter ID-related identification cards. In Wisconsin, which won its long and expensive legal battle in defense of its strict statute when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case earlier this year, is having trouble finding money to comply with its law.
And, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Minnesota is still confused on whether it spent $3 million on implementation since 2012 or as much as $78 million.
Litigation over Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has also cost a number of municipal and county jurisdictions millions. Charleston, S.C., spent $2 million on lawyers in an unsuccessful fight against a Section 2 lawsuit. Yet, as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund points out, under Section 5 (the key provision in the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court) “it cost an average of $500 for states and localities to submit paperwork for preclearance of changes to voting practices.”
Elsewhere, Voting Rights Act litigation fees are eye-opening, from the $1 million spent by Fayette County, Ga., defending Section 2 to the $3 million that North Carolina has spent defending Voter ID legislation that’s going into effect.
None of these costs account for the burden on individual citizens. Many are either poor or elderly and can’t afford new identification cards while others must travel miles or take days off from work just to get the one so they can participate. Even as these stories make rounds in headlines, public opinion seems unfazed.
Thus, should Voter ID opponents then push a larger budget and economic stress-on-states narrative as a way to finally turn public opinion against Voter ID? For Butterfield, “more litigation” pressure on states and local governments is the key answer when asked if there’s a Plan B considering Voter ID is here to stay in the foreseeable future. “Litigation is very expensive as it’ll continue to take millions of dollars to defend these laws.”
As a result, messaging gears are beginning to shift slightly as Voter ID opponents attempt to rally public and political support behind an issue that is positioning itself, yet again, as a major topic in the 2016 presidential campaign. Candidates on both sides of the political spectrum are already sparring over it, squeezing different meanings based on their respective primary bases.
Democratic candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are passionately using it in a bid to woo critical Black votes, particularly in Southern states where Black voters dominate primaries. And the law, in a karmic sort of fashion, seemed to draw blood on the Republican side: the first two candidates to drop out of the GOP presidential primary, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, were also responsible for implementing some of the most rigid Voter ID laws in the country.
“We have to defend the most fundamental right in our democracy, the right to vote,” said Clinton at a recent convention of Alabama Democrats, calling the state’s recent decision to shut down 31 part-time drivers’ license processing locations throughout majority Black communities “a blast from the Jim Crow past.”
“No one in this state, no one, should ever forget the history that enabled generations of people left out and left behind to finally be able to vote,” she said.
Sanders, during an August rally on the National Mall commemorating the Voting Rights Act, was equally vigorous in his criticism.
“Anybody who is suppressing the vote, anybody who is intentionally trying to keep people from voting because the candidate knows that those people would vote against him or her, that person is a political coward,” he said.
However, the key challenge for Voter ID opponents is whether that message resonates with the general public, especially among white voters who still constitute the majority of the national electorate. Simply put: do they care about disenfranchised Black voters?
For Clinton and Sanders, railing against the Voter ID status quo and its growth in states is a sound strategic move in terms of Black voter mobilization (based on anecdotal observations and exit polling data during the 2012 election, African American voter outrage at GOP voter suppression tactics drove high turnout).
But Voter ID laws are still present and strong in 32 states, including 11 states that enforce what are characterized as “strict” photo or non-photo Voter ID laws and one state, North Carolina, which has a strict law going into effect in 2016. States passing these laws house solid Republican majorities in state legislatures or have Republican governors who are aggressive proponents and political boosters of these laws.
And public support for Voter ID is still fairly solid despite the controversy surrounding it. A 2013 YouGov poll not only showed 89 percent Republican support for laws requiring photo identification to vote, but also 60 percent of Democrats supporting it. Nearly 40 percent of voters in that poll viewed the Voting Rights Act as no longer necessary.
Other polls have continued to show consistently high levels of support for Voter ID laws. An April 2012 Fox News poll showed 70 percent support (52 percent Democrats, 72 percent independents and 87 percent Republicans). In 2014, a May poll from the same news organization not only found 70 percent support, but a somewhat odd and rather slim majority of Black voters, 51 percent, also supporting. Rasmussen also released polls in 2014 and 2015 showing 78 percent and 76 percent Voter ID law support, respectively.
Even as Voter ID opponents point out the disproportionate effect such laws have on underserved or traditionally disadvantaged Black and Latino populations, the term “Voter ID” itself is fairly innocuous in the messaging. Public discussion centers on the politically-engineered myth of a national voter fraud problem as most citizens — uneducated in the contours of a very sophisticated and partisan-driven debate — perceive a “Voter ID” as relatively harmless.
That challenge is leaving many observers and Voter ID opponents stumped on how to best counter the onslaught of Voter ID laws with appealing political messaging while fighting them in the courts. With most polls, especially among Republican voters, showing little concern for the demographic or racial impact of Voter ID laws, some experts agree that it’s probably time to focus more on the economic impact of implementing the law. Such a pragmatic shift in branding opposition could be used to convince fiscally conservative voters that it’s probably not the best use of resources.
“It’s one of the things we watch carefully when we talk about the collateral consequences of moving forward with these laws and the increased burden on local, state boards of elections,” explains Michele Jawando, vice president of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. “If we really want to look at cost-cutting measures then we should look at automatic registration. There’s no extra step, it’s an efficient use of resources. It’s cheaper.”