Voter ID Laws: Stopping Fraud or Suppressing the Vote?
By Jem Palo
Republicans call their efforts identification laws. Democrats call them voter suppression. Whichever term you prefer, a nationwide move to mandate stricter voter ID regulations may pose a problem for some Asian American voters.
Seventeen states have enacted controversial laws demanding government-approved photo IDs in order to vote, with six states, including Virginia, creating such laws since 2010. It’s been a huge priority for conservatives, who introduced voter ID legislation in 32 states this past year, along with attempts to trim registration rolls and curtail early voting. Many Democrats objected, claiming the bills’ proponents were unable to demonstrate that voter identity fraud is actually a problem.
Democrats also charge Republicans with seeking to limit voting by Democratic-leaning citizens who may not possess or have access to the type of IDs the new laws require. These include the elderly, students, the poor, minorities, people who don’t drive, and immigrants. Democrats fear that cutting back on the availability of early voting will also diminish turnout among those groups. The new voter ID requirements passed in Republican-controlled Virginia are not as stringent as the regulations in other states, some of which remain the focus of legal action. But the changes may come as a surprise to some who have been voting in the Commonwealth for decades.
“It has been viewed as a hassle. But you know I don’t perceive it as such to be honest with you,” said Malik Khan a political Independent in Virginia, speaking about voting. Kahn, a 63-year old retired engineer, has been casting his ballots in Virginia since 1988. A Pakistani immigrant, he is President of the Asian American Society of Central Virginia. “The last time I voted, they asked for the voter ID, I showed it to them, and that was not an issue,” he added.
But Khan was unaware of Virginia’s latest changes in procedure. Previously, Virginia voters merely signed an affidavit if they were unable to show proper identification. Now voters are to be given provisional ballots, and their votes will be counted only if they obtain and show the necessary government-approved IDs by the Friday after the election, which the laws’s opponents say is an unreasonably short window of opportunity.
All this has Christine Chen, Executive Director of APIAVote, worried. “With all the voter registration changes and the voter ID changes, we’re just fearful that especially with new voters, or even for someone who’s voted four years ago, they may actually go on election day and be turned away or not know what they can do if they don’t have their ID or if they don’t carry the right thing,” said Chen.
Chen and other voting rights activists face a challenge in motivating people to vote in the first place, and feel that erecting more barriers will make that job even more difficult. A generally accepted study by New York University's Brennan Center says that 11% of voting age citizens lack government-issued photo IDs.
“If you vote with the provisional ballot, it will be stuffed in an envelope and it will be counted only if you go back to the election office, like, the next day or by Friday, to present acceptable ID,” Chen said. “So once again, you know how many people are actually going to do that?”
Glen Magpantay of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund aired his concerns on a National Public Radio broadcast, saying, “You know, for Asian Americans it's similar with other racial and ethnic minority groups, particularly Chinese-Americans who are new citizens, who may be employed in low wage industries. We find that Asian Americans, like other African-American and Latino voters, lack [standard] forms of identification.”
Forms such as naturalization certificates can be expensive to obtain, Magpantay said. And he is also concerned with the conjunction of Asian-American names as poll workers are instructed to take a closer look at prospective voters. Poll workers may be unfamiliar with the inverted names, where last names become surnames, Magpantay fears, causing problems and delays which might leave voters frustrated enough to give up and go back to home or work.
About 60 percent of Asian Americans are foreign-born and more than 32 percent of the country’s Asian Americans have limited English language skills, prompting the Asian American Justice Center (AAJC) to worry that negotiating the twists and turns of stricter ID requirements may be challenging for many. Some states have promoted English-only material on voting day, but under the Voting Rights Act, eleven states will provide ballots in AAPI languages, according to the AAJC.
Susan Lee is a Maryland State Delegate, a Montgomery County Democrat who is the first Asian American woman and the first Chinese American to be elected to the legislature in Annapolis. She is uneasy about the new ID laws, believing they especially affect the elderly or minority groups. “They may not have any kind of documentation to show who they are, but you know they’ve always voted in the elections consistently,” said Lee, who recently participated in a “Voter Suppression” forum with Senator Brian Frosh, also a Montgomery County Democrat.
But supporters of the new policies in Virginia and other states don’t buy that argument.
“I don’t think it’s too much of a hurdle to give a photo ID,” said Patrick Murray, Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Jim Moran in Northern Virginia’s 8th Congressional District. “You have to have a photo ID to do almost anything nowadays.” Murray and other supporters of tougher voter ID laws can point to polls showing majority opinion usually in favor of their position.
Lee is aware of all this, and advises voters to take the time now to be prepared on election day. “Just be aware if there are these restrictions,” she warned. “Just be aware of what is required of you to vote.”
Sept. 25 was National Voter Registration Day, and the Asian American Justice Center joined forces with other coalition groups including the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, National Congress of American Indians, The National Urban League and others to march and put attention on the issue, discuss steps to take to ensure equal access to voting, and strengthen resources to ensure their constituents keep their right to vote.