Photo ID and Future Gratitude

You get some news in the form of public announcements. The right lane will be closed on the expressway next week, but the Department of Transportation will see that it’s done after hours. The United Methodist Church Youth will hold a car wash to raise money for the local food pantry. That sort of thing.

But most news comes in two categories. It is news because it contradicts expectations, as when man bites dog. Or it is news because it confirms narrative, as when Mitt Romney insists corporations are people.

This was a story that did both.

Tennessee resident Dorothy Cooper, a 96 year old citizen, gathered up her aging documents put them all in a big envelope, and got a ride with a volunteer. She had heard about a new law that would keep her from voting unless she had photo identification. Most folks have a driver’s license, but she doesn’t drive. Never has. But the state of Tennessee says a free ID will be made available.

When she got to the license bureau, where she could get that free photo ID, she showed officials her rent receipts, a copy of her lease, her voter registration card, and her birth certificate. They said that wasn’t enough and ordered her to go away. She didn’t have the marriage certificate, her husband having died so many years before.

The story appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

She asked the volunteer, the one who gave her a ride, to call and find out what could be done. The volunteer did just that, asking if Dorothy Cooper could obtain and bring back a copy of the marriage certificate and re-apply for the ID that would allow her to vote. The volunteer encountered laughter from the state worker on the phone. The worker could not fathom anyone going through that much trouble just to vote. She said it had never happened before in her experience.

That this voter was willing to continue seeking rides and revisiting offices made it unusual. But then, she was not stopped from voting since she was in her 20s, not even during the Jim Crow era.

What made it part of a narrative is that the roadblock is not at all unusual. News reports have favored elderly women who have voted all their lives. Here’s an 83 year old widow in Wisconsin. But those affected include more than retired folks, encompassing the working poor, riding buses or walking to jobs. College students living within walking distance of classes usually have college IDs with photos. Legislators have pointedly excluded school IDs. Minorities are disproportionately affected.

Authoritative studies say as many as 5 million legitimate voters will be turned away this year. That’s legitimate. With an L. An exhaustive study pushed by the Bush administration found that over a 5 year period in hundreds of elections around the United States fewer than 2 dozen cases of voter fraud were found that could have been prevented by a photo ID.

2 dozen as opposed to 5 million.

One aspect of the massive voter suppression effort, one that is discouraging to me, is the reaction of some who could have been expected to know better. It seems to me to be part of the unfortunate historical tendency of liberals toward unwarranted conciliation. They (which is a polite way of saying we) too often surrender the rhetorical high ground in the spirit of verbal balance. This would not be more than an annoyance if it did not involve bartering with the rights of others.

Some of those I admire view the entire controversy as entirely political. If you are Republican, you should favor voter suppression. You may defend it as a legitimate defense against voter fraud, but the honest reason is political. Similarly, if you are a Democrat, you should oppose photo ID laws. You may oppose them as a denial of voter rights, but the honest reason is political as well. Nobody wants to lose. Everyone wants to win. End of story.

That the justification for voter suppression is ephemeral is seen as a good debating point. That the deprivation of a basic right is widespread is considered a rhetorical score. That the only real consideration is which politicians benefit is regarded as an immutable truth. The cynicism is regarded as a frank bow toward fairness, a knowing wink toward balance. Nobody is really right. Everyone is in it for pure partisan gain.

It may be part of human nature. It may be a national trait. I suspect it is part of the liberal psyche. We on the left do, after all, enjoy our position of balance, of moderation in all things. And cynicism has it’s own attraction.

It is not a conceit confined to this time and place.

After the Civil War, there was a concerted effort in the would-be-Confederacy to put down newly freed slaves. Intimidation went to violence, often deadly violence. The Republican Congress responded with Freedman’s Bureaus and laws guaranteeing voting rights. These were eventually overturned with the election in 1876 of Rutherford B. Hayes as President. Black people became fair game.

The conciliators of the 1870s and the historical researchers of a few decades later must have felt a certain compromising satisfaction as they crafted a middle course in national debate. No need for evidence. The truth being in the middle was a premise, not a conclusion. Efforts to keep alive the rights of former slaves after a bloody war became, in the politics of the day, “waving the bloody shirt.”

Many decades later, their desire for a balanced approach lived on, long after they were gone from this earthly realm. It infected the textbooks of my youth with misinformation and historical distortion. Republicans became, in the national imagination, Radical Republicans. The laws they passed protecting the rights of former slaves became, in later history, vindictive punishment on the South.

And so, as the torch was passed from one generation to another, then another, we were taught lies in our classrooms.

Today, when an elderly widow, when any legitimate voter, is told she cannot vote for frivolous reasons, we should be outraged on her behalf. That we could count it off as the debatable partisan violation of the rights of some politician to another tick in his election tally is … well … unfortunate. That the ostensible reason for this denial of a basic right is to prevent what virtually never happens is not simply “a good point.” The likely repetition of this injustice in varying degrees as many as 5 million times is not to be opposed simply as a political calculation.

Post-Civil War Republicans paid a political and popular price for going against the public fatigue about black rights. Nearly a century and a half later, we should be thankful for their courage. We should pray for some similar courage within our ranks today.

Perhaps we can be forgiven for the faint hope that some future generation will see past conciliatory balance and cynical rhetorical barter to what will be clear in retrospect to have been right.

And that, looking back on our lives, they also will have cause to be grateful.

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