I thought we were mostly done with this after 2016. I thought we’d cleaned up the lingering bits of it after the 2018 midterms. But as the push to get people registered to vote in the 2020 primaries and general election ramps up, I’m seeing it again.
“If voting made a difference, it would be illegal.”
There’s just one problem with that. Voting is illegal.
Oh, it might not be illegal for you. If you belong to a population that isn’t over-policed and over-sentenced, if you were born in and have a stable residence in a “nice” (i.e., white and relatively wealthy) neighborhood, if your appearance is unremarkable among the voters at your polling station, then yeah, it’s probably perfectly legal for you to vote.
That doesn’t mean this is true for everyone else.
I’m a white woman who’s lived for more than 20 years at the same address in a state that prides itself on having the highest voter turnout in the country. I’m a citizen born to citizens, who could easily show up in person to get a copy of my birth certificate from a county whose records are well-protected. I know my neighbors, who’ve also lived here for years, and who are civic-minded enough to come to the polls to vouch for me, and I can register with no more than that on election day then vote immediately if I discover at the last moment that something has happened to my registration.
It’s so not illegal for me to vote.
Contrast that with college students. For students in some states, it may be illegal to vote on campus or with the college ID that they otherwise use to establish their residence. It may be illegal to vote in the state in which they are residents for several years without shouldering the costs to obtain permanent-resident documentation.
Contrast it with those who move frequently or lack stable housing altogether. In states without same-day registration, they won’t be legally able to vote if they move after registering and before election day.
Contrast it with Native Americans living on tribal land in North Dakota, for many of whom it became illegal to vote between 2018 primaries and the general election because they didn’t have street addresses assigned, much less on their IDs.
Contrast it with citizens born in particularly poor or rural counties who cannot prove their citizenship because their birth certificates no longer exist after fire, flood, or administrative churn. If they can’t afford the legal process to have it reissued, it can become illegal for them to vote, depending on the documentation required. The same is true for citizens born abroad under certain circumstances.
Contrast it even with non-white citizens, born or naturalized, who have their documentation. It is technically legal for them to vote. However, if voting brings them to the attention of ICE, all their protestations and paperwork may make no difference. They may be held for weeks or years or even deported. The situation is not nearly rare enough.
Finally, contrast my situation with that of Black citizens. Unnecessary voter-ID laws make it illegal for many of them to vote without taking on the expense of additional ID. Disproportionate services cutbacks can exacerbate the problem, assuming they have or can afford the necessary documents in the first place. And Secretaries of State, like Brian Kemp in Georgia, have had the access to add even more, disproportional hoops to legal voting.
That doesn’t even begin to touch on the disenfranchisement Michelle Alexander covered in depth in The New Jim Crow, though. The disparities are well documented, from police contacts to police actions to charging to sentencing. This is a civil rights issue in itself, but it also affects the right to vote. Even where progress has been made after a long struggle, politicians are doing their best to stop or delay restoration of these rights. And yes, misunderstanding these rules or your own status is definitely a crime.
So if you’ve ever said voting isn’t illegal, take a moment. Think about why you’ve been told that. Consider who thinks it’s in their best interest that it be easy for you to vote legally. Think about how you’re expected to vote differently than the people whose votes have been made illegal.
Their votes are considered important. Their votes are expected to make a difference. If that’s your main goal, instead of staying home, maybe go vote the way they wish they could.