This cannot be

Iraqi voters waving purple fingers became instant folk heroes, and rightly so – they showed incredible courage in claiming their rights as free citizens.

But apparently House Republicans feel threatened by those purple fingers when they’re displayed in Boston or Beaumont instead of Baghdad and Basra.

Following the lead of several states, they recently passed a measure requiring all voters in 2008 to present a photo ID; by 2010, that ID would have to prove citizenship. President Bush, to his shame, says he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Proving your identity might sound reasonable, but in practice, obtaining government IDs can be complicated and costly for some voters, mainly the poor, the elderly and the non-white. And even the smallest obstacle can erode a person’s rights.

Take Steve’s Mom, who recently moved from New Jersey to Maryland and has to re-register, a difficult enough process when you’re 87. But she no longer has a driver’s license, and requiring her to get a special ID card would almost certainly stop her from voting at all.

The great march of American progress over the last century has steadily extended the franchise: to women, blacks, youngsters under 21. To restrict that right, the keystone of the entire democratic system, would be disgraceful under any circumstances, but the current moment is particularly disastrous. As Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis put it: “In this era of low turnouts and disenchanted voters, we should be making it easier, not harder to cast a ballot.”



The president has made spreading democratic values the core of his foreign policy, but he undermines his own credibility if he doesn’t uphold those values here at home. And he seems willing to sign this terrible bill for one reason: short-term political gain.

Republicans believe that an upsurge in anti-immigrant sentiment will drive their base voters to the polls this fall, and the debate over voter IDs offers a golden chance to stoke the nativist fears that lurk just below the surface of American politics. A typical comment came from Russell K. Pearce, an Arizona state legislator: “Nobody has the right to cancel my vote by voting illegally. This is about political corruption.”

Moreover, the voters most likely to be intimidated by an ID requirement tend to favor Democrats, so it’s a double bonus for the GOP: stir up your supporters and suppress your opponents. Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes got it right when he said, “I’ve never seen such a sinister plot” to subvert democracy.

Since we come from Louisiana and New Jersey, two states not known for political virtue, we know that political corruption is a real issue. As we’ve said many times, both sides have a point: Democrats want to make sure that all votes are counted, and Republicans want to make sure they’re only counted once.

But there is simply no evidence of widespread fraud by unqualified voters. As The New York Times reported, out of 2.7 million registered voters in Arizona (which has passed the harshest law in the country) only 238 were non-citizens, and only four of those aliens actually voted.

The reason is obvious, notes Thomas Patterson, an election expert teaching at Harvard: “If you are an illegal immigrant, the last thing you want to do is show up at a polling place.”

Actually, there is a major threat looming to democratic values this fall, but it doesn’t come from undocumented voters, it comes from unproven machines and untrained workers that could produce chaos at many voting stations. Earlier this month, Steve tried to vote in the Maryland primary, but was turned away because election officials had neglected to distribute the cards that activate the voting machines.

He could have come back a second time – and the polls did stay open an hour later than scheduled – but his basic rights were violated, and he wound up not voting. The cause was human error, not mendacity. But what sense does it make to pass laws that deliberately make it harder to vote?

Fortunately, these various voter ID laws are almost certainly unconstitutional. Two state courts, in Georgia and Missouri, have already ruled against them and the Georgia judge, T. Jackson Bedford Jr., issued a ringing rebuke to the governor and the legislature for tampering with the franchise: “This cannot be.”

But Republicans on Capitol Hill and in state houses across the country are not listening to his wise words. They seem intent on using their power to entrench their majority and endanger the democratic process.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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