Slimantics: The conditional right to vote....

August 22, 2012 10:24:07 AM

Slim Smith - ssmith@cdispatch.com

 

It is an ageless truth: You often don't realize the value of something until you lose it. 

 

I suppose that is why I am particularly sensitive to the recent trend for Voter ID laws in some states. 

 

On March 2, 2007, I became what is referred to as "disenfranchised.'' As a result of my felony DUI conviction, I lost many of the rights that I had, until then, pretty much taken for granted or had ignored altogether. I could not run for public office. I could not own or possess a firearm. I could not obtain a passport. And I could not vote. 

 

No whining here. You reap what you sow. I mention this only to explain why I find any effort to infringe on the rights we have as citizens to be abhorrent. 

 

Today, I have regained many of those rights. Once I had served my sentence, completed my probation and paid thousands of dollars in fines, certain rights were restored. I still cannot own or possess a firearm, and I can't run for office. I don't lose any sleep over either of those, anyway. 

 

But I can vote. And that is something I do appreciate. 

 

From March of 2007 until April of 2010, I couldn't vote. I missed voting in 2008, the first time I had not voted in a presidential election since 1976. 

 

The right to vote is something I have learned to cherish. So any effort to deny it to others is something I vigorously oppose. 

 

I have heard all the arguments in favor of Voter ID. I am unimpressed.  

 

First, it seems to me that there are already existing laws on the books to deal with voter fraud. Second, virtually all of the evidence of voter fraud is anecdotal. Rare is the case when voter fraud can be proven. 

 

If Voter ID is upheld (a Pennsylvania law was upheld in court but is almost certain to face careful scrutiny in appellate court), I am convinced that some eligible voters will be denied a fundamental American right.  

 

In our justice system, it is often said that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free rather than one innocent man be convicted. That sentiment should apply to our right to vote as well, it seems to me. 

 

Oddly, most of the support for Voter ID laws comes from the political right, a group that -- in virtually every other instance -- is vigilant in its defense of individual rights. For example, if you even mention any form of gun control, people will come out of the woodwork to cite those efforts as "yet another example of the government trying to take away our rights!" There are dozens of new ideas that many people are absolutely convinced are simply a ploy to strip us of our rights. But our right to vote? Not so much. 

 

Voter ID proponents will argue that if a person needs an ID to drive a car or open a bank account or do a hundred other things, then requiring an ID to vote shouldn't be a problem. IDs are readily available, too, and can be obtained at no cost.  

 

And yet I am still not swayed. 

 

Driving a car or opening a bank account is different from voting in one vitally important sense: Voting is a fundamental right of every lawful citizen who is of age. Once you begin to place conditions on rights, it ceases to be a fundamental right. It becomes a right that others can deny to a person. 

 

Mississippians who are even remotely aware of the state's sorry history on voting rights should be particularly sensitive to any measure that would place any conditions on the right to vote. Things such as literacy tests and the poll taxes were once applied to the right to vote in our state. 

 

Much like Voter ID, there were "good reasons'' for those conditions. A literacy test weeded out those who were too ignorant to make an informed decision, the reasoning went. Poll taxes were a legitimate means to defray the costs associated with holding elections. 

 

Both explanations were a fraud, we realize now. The reasons for those measures was clearly an attempt to prevent blacks from going to the polls in the Jim Crow era of our state's history. 

 

That is why "good reasons" for Voter ID laws should be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion and avoided on principle. 

 

Of course, Mississippi is entrenched in right-wing politics. So naturally, we have our own version of Voter ID, which reveals much about the our legislature's ability to learn from the past. 

 

That's a sad thing. I hear a lot about how much progress Mississippi has made on the issue of race. Then I see this sort of thing, and I have to wonder if we aren't kidding ourselves. 

 

We often hear the lament that Americans do not cherish the right to vote. In most elections, only a small percentage of eligible voters bother to go to the polls. 

 

And now we have Voter ID laws which serve to ensure that even fewer Americans will vote? 

 

Voter ID laws are counter-intuitive, dubious in motive and an assault on a fundamental right of American citizens. 

 

Yes, I am sensitive on this subject. 

 

It was something I learned in prison, you might say.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.