In the month since political analyst Donna Brazile took the helm as interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, she's been focused on matters relating to the 2012 election, including a push by Republican-controlled state legislatures to require photo identification at the polls. Republicans say that the laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, but Brazile claims that they're a partisan tactic designed to weed out voters who are more likely to be Democrats and help the GOP on Election Day.
"The photo-identification laws that Republicans are pushing across the country are most likely to disenfranchise young Americans, poor Americans and minorities — individuals who are least likely to have government identification or to be able to afford to get it," said Brazile in a recent DNC statement.
Eight states have photo-ID laws, and legislation is pending in more than 30 others. Among the more noteworthy measures:
* An Ohio bill would require one of four forms of photo identification at the polls: an Ohio driver's license, a personal state ID card, a military ID or a passport.
* Under a Kansas bill, not only must voters show a photo ID at the polls; in order to register to vote, they will also have to produce their birth certificate or other proof of citizenship.
* A pending Texas bill rejects voters with IDs from state universities but would accept, among a few other forms of identification, a handgun license.
Although 11 percent of eligible voters don't have these types of photo identification — stats that creep higher among the typically Democratic-voting groups of African Americans, the poor and the young — many people don't see what the big deal is. When The Root explored the issue in a previous article, most commenters said that voter-ID laws sounded like common sense. Democratic hand-wringing, on the other hand, sounded like excuse making for people who can't be bothered to make a simple trip to the DMV.
On her last day as DNC interim chair before passing the torch to incoming chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Brazile makes her case. She explains why laws requiring certain forms of photo identification only sound sensible, and what she thinks lawmakers should do to really protect voting rights.
The Root: Why should people care about this issue?
Donna Brazile: I believe that any time you attack the right of ordinary people to participate in the political process, you attack the foundation of democracy itself. This is a moment for us to think, "How did we get here?"
There are those in the Republican Party who believe that there's widespread voter fraud. The Brennan Center for Justice shows that you have a greater possibility of getting struck by lightning than seeing someone brought to criminal court for voter fraud. And yet this is all we hear about from Republicans.
TR: Well, they're pointing to cases of voter-registration fraud —
DB: Yes, we've seen some voter-registration fraud. We've seen people who were given stipends to recruit people to register, and who abused that system. But we haven't seen actual voter fraud with fictional names showing up at the polls, or people double voting, to the point where we should overturn laws. We can solve that problem by having regulations on how we conduct voter-registration drives.
Instead of focusing on the real crises that we have in cleaning up voter-registration rolls, or making sure that first-time voters know how to navigate the political process, what we're seeing is this massive overhaul of election codes to restrict people from participating in the electoral process.
TR: When we posted a story about this, many readers didn't see the big deal. People routinely use photo ID for bank transactions, buying beer or boarding a plane, so what explanation is there for so many African Americans who don't have it?
DB: In some cases it's a generational issue [because a significant percentage of voters under the age of 30 and over the age of 65 don't have state-issued IDs]. It's also the fact that getting a driver's license is an expense that many people choose not to have.
My parents did not own a car; therefore they had no driver's license — they were able to cash checks with their Social Security cards. The bottom line is, if we're going to make this a new guideline for voting, then every eligible American should receive a photo ID upon turning 18.
These [voter ID] measures may seem proper on paper, but they are very restrictive and make voting a hurdle. I'm not opposed to showing photo ID. The problem is that we don't have uniform voting laws in this country. If we did, then we could have a national photo ID, or state photo IDs, that would be the appropriate form for everybody. But because every jurisdiction is different, what's good enough in one county may be ineligible in another. When people show up to vote, they don't know what form will be accepted.
TR: But is that just an excuse for people who don't stay up on what they need to do?
DB: No, I'm not making excuses. I have advocated from Day 1 — whatever the rules, make them uniform and standard so that we're not rewriting them every five minutes to catch up with the political times. I don't believe that voting laws should change based on who occupies the White House. Every eligible citizen should have access to the ballot box, period. It should not be a partisan game.
This year they're saying the new laws are because of voter fraud and, "It's OK because this sounds like common sense." We know, from the days of the poll tax and literacy tests to now requesting different forms of photo identification, that this is a suppression tactic. If it's not uniform, then it is a way to restrict. If these state lawmakers feel strongly that you must have so-called government-issued photo identification, then make it possible for everyone to easily get one for free.
TR: States with these laws, like Georgia and Indiana, actually do provide free photo IDs for people who don't have them. Pending photo-ID laws in Ohio and South Carolina require similar assistance.
DB: Even if a certain office produces photo identification free of charge, there are still questions about access and getting that information to voters. For example, will the state instruct the county or localities to provide it? Providing IDs without charge does not actually make them "free." Eligible citizens would still need supporting documents, may need to take time off work to travel to the DMV and likely stand in long lines once they arrive. This is an additional obstacle to voting, and a completely unnecessary one.
TR: Another concern from our readers was that these laws will protect against undocumented immigrants padding the polls with their votes. Is that a valid concern?
DB: The last thing an undocumented person wants to do is call attention to the fact that they're undocumented. They're the last group of would-be voters who would ever attempt such a thing. And there's no evidence of this happening.
TR: On Wednesday, the DNC holds its meeting to vote in Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz as its new chair. What do you think she'll bring to the DNC?
DB: At a time when the Democrats are rolling up their sleeves to help the president with the economy and other big challenges facing this country, Debbie will be able to speak to all of these issues. She'll also be at the table to recruit candidates, raise money for the president's re-election and make sure we get out the vote in 2012. She's a strong voice for equal rights, a really dedicated public servant, and I look forward to turning the gavel over to her.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.