You have no driver’s license because you have nothing to drive. You have no passport because you’ve never been out of the country. You have no other photo I.D. because you have no bank account. You work and get paid under the table, a wad of cash sliding from hand to hand.
It is a life lived in the margins. And if South Carolina and a number of other GOP-controlled states have their way, it will be a life to which a significant new impediment will be added: you will not be able to vote.
Over the holiday, the Justice Department rejected a South Carolina law requiring a photo ID — as opposed to just a voter registration card — for would-be voters. The department called the law discriminatory against African Americans. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, South Carolina and other states and localities with histories of infringing the voting rights of African Americans are required to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. This is the first time the feds have rejected such a change since 1994.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has blasted the decision as political. She probably has a point. The law would have disproportionately affected the poor, who are disproportionately likely, for the reasons outlined above, to lack photo IDs. The poor are disproportionately black, and black people are disproportionately likely to vote Democratic. It would be naïve to believe that did not enter into the thinking of the Obama Justice Department.
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But the inverse is also true. As similar voter ID laws are passed in other Republican-controlled states — including those that not covered by the Voting Rights Act — it would be naïve to believe politics does not also enter the GOP’s thinking. Though lawmakers swear their only interest is to combat voting fraud (which is not known to be a rampant problem), it is difficult not to feel their true intent is to suppress the black vote.
Granted, race is nowhere mentioned in the voter ID bills. It was not mentioned in bills imposing grandfather clauses, poll taxes and literacy tests either. All were officially race-neutral, yet the intention and effect was to bar blacks from voting.
As Richard Nixon once said of his War on Drugs, another “race-neutral” policy that somehow victimizes mostly blacks, the idea is to target African Americans while appearing not to.
The Justice Department was right to block this law, but it is nonetheless hard not to feel a certain pox-on-all-their-houses cynicism as people who live on the margins are both targeted — and defended — for political reasons, but otherwise go unremarked and unrecalled.
Democrats depend upon the votes of black and/or poor people, but do little to earn them — no jobs training, no criminal justice system reform, no attention whatsoever to the things that delimit their lives. Meantime, Republicans write off the votes of black and/or poor people and do all they can to suppress them.
They are made mute and forgotten even as the public square rings like a cash register and monied interests ka-ching! their way into positions of power and influence with politicians on both sides of the aisle who are ostensibly elected to represent us all — even if we lack a photo ID.
Corporations are people, we have been told. Poor people, evidently, are not.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.