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President's Corner

Democracy Turned Upside Down

AARP Foundation Litigation challenges voter ID laws

Here's what voters in Pennsylvania, where AFL just filed a brief, are up against:

  • People 65-plus are 10 times more likely to have relinquished their driver's license; 20 percent never had one at all.
  • More than 83 percent of 65-plus people no longer work, although most still carry government identification: Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid card. But none of these cards count.
  • Just 25 percent of people 65-plus have a passport — disabilities and lack of funds keep many from traveling.
  • Some 420,000 veterans carry a Veterans Administration card. Thanks for your service, but no thanks: Government-issued VA cards don't have a photo or expiration date.

Grover Freeland, 72, was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and joined the U.S. Army in 1964, serving two years before being honorably discharged. He moved to Pennsylvania to attend college, and after graduation he stayed. Unfortunately for Mr. Freeland, he hasn't had a driver's license in 30 years and his only government ID is his VA card. While the card contains his encoded medical records, the law doesn't recognize it. Mr. Freeland has not been successful at retrieving his birth certificate from New York. If he doesn't get it before Election Day, this Army veteran will be unable to vote.

Many older African Americans never had a birth certificate. Home births were once much more common, especially among blacks, who before the civil rights era were often denied access to hospitals.

What's particularly mind-boggling about these new voter ID laws is that only those who show up at the polls to vote must produce photo ID. Absentee voters or people who vote by mail have it much easier. If they have a driver's license, they just need to provide its number; if they don't have one, they only have to give the last four digits of their Social Security number.

Many of the news stories about the new voter ID laws compare them to Jim Crow laws, and I see their point. Jim Crow laws — passed by Southern legislatures after Reconstruction and in effect until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — kept black citizens from voting through poll taxes and literacy tests, slashing voter turnout among African Americans and keeping it low throughout the first half of the 20th century.

The Voting Rights Act produced a dramatic turnaround. By 1968, 62 percent of black voters were registered, and this large new group of voters began electing black mayors, city councilmen, sheriffs and members of Congress. The most severe racial restrictions maintained in the Deep South rapidly eroded.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out in 1957 about widespread attempts to keep African Americans from voting: "The denial of this sacred rite is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic condition. It is democracy turned upside down." Step by step since then, the United States has been turning democracy right side up. For many of our oldest citizens, by reviving the importance of documents tainted by long-abandoned unequal practices, the new voter ID laws could turn it upside down again. That is why I appreciate the efforts of our colleagues in AARP Foundation Litigation to protect "this sacred rite."

Jo Ann Jenkins is president of AARP Foundation.

Also of interest: ElderWatch protects seniors from fraud.

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