With all the craziness going on in the world, elections have been on a lot of people’s minds lately. The other day I started watching Chelsea Handler’s new documentary special on Netflix called Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea. One of the things it touched on was voter suppression through rules around voter ID. It’s an issue that disproportionately affects racial minorities, but it also negatively affects other disadvantaged groups as well.
I suspect the average person would probably think that having rules around ID is a good thing. What’s less obvious, though, is that this practice ends up disenfranchising a segment of the population that is likely to face other disadvantages as well. This includes impoverished people living with mental illness.
Although concerns have been raised in recent years about foreign actors (particularly Russia) attempting to interfere with Western elections, actual voter fraud at the level of individuals going to polling stations is very rare.
Any country must find the right balance between deterring fraud and ensuring suffrage for marginalized populations. The former is often a lot more popular than the latter.
A paradox: You can’t get ID without ID
Consider that it is really, really hard to get ID when you don’t already have ID. I never realized how hard until I started working in community mental health. Requirements vary depending on where you live, but sometimes it can be next to impossible.
In Canada, the go-to piece of ID to be able to replace other pieces of ID is the birth certificate. To get a replacement birth certificate, you need to provide your parent’s place of birth. Let’s say you don’t know that, and don’t really have a way of finding out. Maybe one parent died years ago, and the other is in jail for molesting you as a child. On top of that, you’re estranged from the rest of your family for getting your parent thrown in jail where they belong. Too bad, so sad, no ID for you.
One client of mine was born in the UK and immigrated to Canada as a young child. For him, a citizenship card was the basic foundational piece of ID. This isn’t related to voting, but it’s an example of how hard it can be. He needed this to prove how long he’d been in Canada in order to apply for Old Age Security benefits. His citizenship card would prove this, but it was literally impossible to get a replacement because he had no ID, didn’t know details about his parents’ arrival in Canada, and couldn’t ask them because they were dead. We ended up having to track down his old school records to prove he’d been in the country since he was a kid so he could get his pension.
Electoral laws in Canada
Current laws for federal elections in Canada require a voter to prove their identity and their address. There is a broad range of acceptable identification, including a prescription pill bottle. Changes were made prior to the 2015 federal election allowing voter information cards, which get mailed out to everyone on the voters list, to serve as proof of address. For people who are unable to prove their identity or address, they can do a written attestation and have a neighbour with proper ID vouch for them. For people who are homeless, chances are pretty good they’re out of luck.
In the 2015 election, less than 1% of voters had a neighbour vouch for them. According to Elections Canada, “172,000 electors could not exercise their right to vote because they did not have accepted proof of identity and/or address.”
Electoral laws in the U.K.
According to the U.K.-based Electoral Reform Society, the government there has been looking at requiring photo ID to vote. Yet it states that 3.5 million citizens do not have photo ID. The site argues that: “With no evidence of widespread fraud, even a handful of people not voting as they left their ID at home would have a far bigger impact on election results than alleged fraud.”
Electoral laws in the U.S.
The Wikipedia page on U.S. voter ID laws notes that in 2006, Indiana became the first state to require photo ID to vote. Since then, 7 other states have also banned strict photo ID laws. Ten states request photo ID but do have other options available. Non-photo ID is strictly required in 3 states. In 16 states, no ID is required in order to vote. The Republican Party has pushed for stricter voter ID requirements. A number of sources cited on the Wikipedia page indicate that voter fraud of the type that would be prevented by voter ID laws is extremely rare.
It’s very easy to argue that voter ID is a good thing; it seems self-evident. However, it looks very different when looking at the issue without a lens of privilege. Without that lens, it starts to look a whole lot more like voter suppression. It’s easy to forget about the homeless, low income earners, the elderly, the disabled, and racial/ethnic minorities, all of whom are less likely to have photo ID, because why would they care about voting when so many of us sitting in our privileged positions just can’t be bothered voting?
I think that as nations we are only as good as the way we treat our most disadvantaged citizens. Voting is a fundamental right in any democracy, and we need it to be equally available to all citizens. We owe it to our citizens now, and to all those across the world who have already fought so hard for the right to vote.
The Social Justice & Equality page has info and resources on a wide variety of social issues.