The Photo ID Movement as White Privilege

Austin, Texas

“This is her first time to vote!” exclaimed her grandmother as the young woman stepped toward me to sign the poll list, voter card in hand. Grandmother and granddaughter were beaming. They were both so proud. Right then and there all my training fell to the floor.

As a substitute poll worker last Spring I had been carefully instructed how to handle first time voters. According to new federal rules handed down in 2002 by the so-called Help America Vote Act (HAVA), I was supposed to ask for photo ID and get them to sign a special roster for first-timers.

“Congratulations,” I said to the young woman, and smiled back with affirmation. “Please sign here.” I pointed to her signature line in the poll book. That’s all.

It would have turned my stomach inside out to demand a photo ID from that woman in that moment. It would have transformed the experience entirely in ways that felt profane. In a moment of pride and participation, I would have injected suspicion: Prove who you are! I don’t believe this setup. You can’t fool me pretending to be this woman’s granddaughter, etc.

The young woman and her grandmother were African American. But other young voters who came with their families that day were not. As I recall, when I turned in my election materials at the end of the day, the roster for new voters was a complete blank. Time after time, either the new voter or a family member standing nearby would want me to know, “this is a first!” And all I could think was, “SSHHH! Don’t let the other poll workers hear you.”

With two wire service reports this week on Republican-led efforts to intensify voter identification in Indiana, Georgia, and Wisconsin, that image of first-time voter pride boils up inside me. Voting is a civil sacrament and I don’t like the way Republicans are transforming it into a credit app.

Plus, with new HAVA-mandated databases coming online, the time is rapidly approaching when machines will be able to spit out lists of first-time voters who did not sign the separate roster confirming that they showed photo ID. And like 150 voters recently subpoenaed in a Houston election contest, they could be subject to follow-up harassment.

And finally, what Republicans signify in this debate is the latest arrogant display of their skin-color privilege. The Republican party USA is the party of white privilege, and their entire demeanor in the voter ID initiative is a smirking exhibition of white power’s backlash prerogatives.

The emotion displayed by African-American legislators during these debates has been criticized as impolite and uncivil, but what are the words that editorial writers use to describe the creepy callousness of Republican floor leaders who carry themselves as if no history every made it impossible for African American populations to vote, as if centuries of official mistreatment leave no impression on a people, or as if fellow citizens have no experiences that they are bound to respect.

Just because you’re acting slick, doesn’t make you civil. And it is one more mark of white skin color privilege in the USA that you get to act like business is usual when the business at hand is beating back the civil rights revolution.

Democratic solidarity on the issue has been gratifying to see. Votes have been straight-party contests. In the Democratic alliance on this issue, I try to see hope that a progressive coalition is possible in which a substantial minority of white folks are able to listen, learn, and respond to civil rights experience. As I witnessed at the polls, the family pride in first-time voters is an experience to be shared across race, class, and ethnicity.

It sounds like such an innocent thing. Just show your photo ID. But in the context of the lived experience of voting in the USA, the demand articulates a separate and unequal perspective developed among operatives who have systematic histories of suppressing African American participation at polling places, where slick guys in ties hang out all day, loudly challenging every old lady who shuffles in. Of course, many of these same old ladies have seen worse, and some have even changed the diapers on these same white brats when they were stinking babies. So it is a kind of pleasure to watch the village elders simply stroll onward, as if completely deaf to these grown men’s cries.

What is not at all innocent is the way these campaigns of suspicion are carried forward without a shred of evidence behind them. Voting officials in Georgia do not contend that fraudulent ID is a problem. The Indiana Secretary of State told one television reporter that he had no evidence that there was a problem that needed fixing. And these things signify that what is taking place in the voter ID movement is nothing but the privilege of white power to get up on any public stage whatsoever and impugn the integrity of an entire class of people.

“We don’t trust any of you,” is what the voter ID movement shouts out. “We especially don’t trust you first-time voters.” To be sure, those first time voters are not going to be trustworthy Republicans by and large, but that hardly makes them fraudulent characters. Baseless suspicion toward such voters codified into law by a party of white power is the thing most inexcusable.

The drama of American democracy has been a satirical affair. On the one hand a cruel promise of equality, on the other hand a shrewd laugh that scoffs: Equality? You’ve got to be kidding! In the photo ID movement the scoff drowns out the promise once again. When will the cruel promise of universal suffrage finally be rolled out like a welcome mat?

GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net








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Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com

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