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WEEDING OUT THE POOR

 

By Nirati Agarwal

 

Friday, October 31, 2008.

 

New York - Amy Squires, a video-production director, has lived and voted in California, Illinois and New York. All three states ostensibly have the same rules for voter identification – voters need to produce ID, but not photo ID. But poll workers mistakenly insisted that Squires show a photo ID in both California and New York.

 

Inappropriate demands by poll workers are just one consequence of having different jurisdictions in charge of identifying eligible voters.

 

A single national standard for voter identification should replace state-by-state voting restrictions, some election officials and voting rights activists say.

 

"We need one federal standard that would apply to everyone, to remedy partisan and discriminatory state manipulation of the elections," said Ion Sancho, the supervisor of elections in Leon County, Florida.

 

Of seven kinds of state ID requirements for first-time and veteran voters, the most lenient allows a broad range of documents, including a non-photo ID, such as a utility bill. The strictest requires a government-issued photo ID.

 

States that require a state-issued photo ID like a valid driver's license, for example, cost 10 percent of all Americans their right to vote, according to a study done by Brennan Center of Justice at New York University's School of Law.

 

"Thousands of voters are being denied their right to vote because of economic circumstances, which prevent them from having these IDs," said Florida attorney Jon May.

 

Strict restrictions usually target the Democratic Party base, activists charge, and states that have a Republican secretary of state overseeing elections are more likely to enforce stricter voting eligibility requirements.

 

"I don't think proponents of these laws think that they're being partisan, but everybody recognizes that that's the consequence," said Mindy Holmes, national co-coordinator style for the AFL-CIO's voter protection program.

 

The toughest states for ID requirements, such as Arizona and Indiana, discriminate against poor people and minorities less likely to have driver's licenses, critics charge.

 

"If you look at the kind of people who don't have IDs, you'd see people from minority communities, students and the elderly," said Maggie Barron, communications manager of the Brennan Center.

 

Strict restrictions are reminiscent of the poll tax, which tended to discourage African-Americans and other minorities from voting, until the practice was prohibited by a constitutional amendment in 1964, May and Barron indicated.

 

Combined, politically-biased and discriminatory state ID requirements discourage voters from casting ballots.

 

"The more the turnout, the more democratic the election will be," said John Westin, lead organizer for ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).

 

Florida's Sancho predicted that that a uniform national ID could be in place as soon as the next presidential election.

 

Supporters said a uniform ID would increase turnout, by making it easier to educate voters.

 

"People have a hard time registering, because different ID laws in different states are confusing," said Lindsay Pryor, voter education and outreach coordinator for the office of the Washington Secretary of State.

 

Voters aren't the only ones who are confused.

 

"Poll workers, election judges and volunteers are also confused, because laws are so different that what they're hearing might be not be what trainers are saying," said AFL-CIO's Mindy Holmes.

 

Voters around the country have noted inappropriate ID demands by poll watchers. "I've seen poll workers overstepping their bounds, demanding to see IDs where there is no such requirement," said Michael Franklin, a New York architect.

 

That's what happened to Amy Squires, the video producer, and she's not happy about it. "Right now," she says, "our voting system isn't working."

 

Nirati Agarwal is a journalism student at New York University and can be reached at nirati_agarwal@yahoo.com

 

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