A Katrina-level hurricane may ravage Indiana today; we have to be ready to report on its path of destruction through the state. We have to make the real imaginable to those who are not there, just as we did in 2005. This hurricane will pound at the pillars of democracy, blowing countless voters out of their polling places — because they do not have the proper state-sanctioned photo identification.
Low-income voters, the elderly, and young students would be affected the most. They are the ones who may not have needed to get proper identification in the past, or who may not have maintained it as current into the present. The first two groups are those least able to take time away to work their way through the bureaucratic requirements needed for them to be able to exercise their most basic democratic right: an equal opportunity to vote on who will lead their nation.
A terrible lesson in voter suppression may be taught today. We need to collect individual stories and make sure that people see it for what it is: the political equivalent of Katrina, in which the legitimate demand of the less privileged for protection is intentionally ignored, to widespread shock and outrage.
I imagine that many people in New Orleans, or those otherwise touched by Katrina, may object to my use of it as a metaphor for what is about to happen in Indiana. Like the Holocaust, rape, or even the death of Eight Belles, reliance on metaphors is sometimes seen as both too facile and disrespectful. While I put in many hours as a pro bono attorney helping victims of Katrina, I was not directly touched by it at the time; so I want to take a moment before going further to explain and justify the metaphor.
What the Katrina disaster did for many in the public was to make the real imaginable. Many people simply did not believe that the government would fail to protect and rescue its citizens, that it would move so slowly and with such insouciance to secure their safety and remove them from danger, that it so blatantly refused to make their welfare a priority. What Katrina did, for those with open eyes, was tear to down the curtain shielding the truth about our Republican leaders from public view. They “cared about Black people” only insofar as they were forced to by public outrage; they did not treat the tragedy as if it were one affecting fellow citizens.
That is exactly what may well happen in Indiana today, in the realm of political rights rather than personal security. A massive tragedy — denial of one’s legitimate right to vote, one’s right of self-determination, the right we supposedly champion in Iraq and throughout the world — is set to wash over the state of Indiana. The media is going to respond as if it is happening somewhere that doesn’t matter to people like us because it is not happening to people like us. “Poor people, students, get screwed all the time,” sophisticated political observers realize; “call us when there’s a real story.”
That cynicism, that failure of empathy, that refusal to imagine the real, is how democratic societies like our allow corrupt and anti-democratic practices flourish.
You probably can imagine — in fact, you probably did imagine — the horror of being on a rooftop, where badly constructed levees have allowed a flood to consume your neighborhood, waiting vainly for rescue as floodwaters rise. You can imagine the horror of being left in the Superdome or Convention Center, with people suffering and dying for lack of sustenance and sanitation, and the government not treating the situation as if it were an emergency requiring massive response. Now, after today, you may well be able to imagine being a citizen who, by all rights, should be able to vote — but who can’t. Who should be able to help determine who the next President will be — but who won’t.
As in New Orleans, where anyone with good transportation, enough gas, and enough ability to control their own schedule could have gotten out of town, in Indiana those with resources will be able to spare themselves from the worst of the ravagement. Someone who drove to the polls, rather than taking the bus, can go back to get their acceptable identification with little hassle. Someone who controls their own schedule, perhaps one who works out of the home, can make time to come back sometime later in the day. Someone who knows and is respected by their small-town precinct worker may even get a little informal waiver of the law, depending on how it’s enforced. The law will disproportionately hurt — is in fact designed to hurt — those with the fewest resources to cope with it. It’s the same story as providing insufficient voting booths in the places where you want to suppress the vote, or not enough workers, or having workers slow down processing, or having uniformed police carefully and blatantly eyeballing any minority voter walking towards the polls, or scheduling votes in inconvenient sites, or having flunkies take up all of the parking places within a mile radius of the polling station: if you make it inconvenient enough for people to vote, some of them who want to vote will give in and give up. They will give up their right to vote that day.
It’s a decision that the more fortunate among us will never have to make — although I suspect that if the government moved the polling places for wealthy neighborhoods to the dirtiest and most dangerous part of town, we’d hear no end of outrage.
Of course, a law like this is in many ways different from a hurricane. It’s much more predictable, for one thing. And where the storm was a dumb force of nature, this law is intelligent, malevolent, selective in its targets.
We may well see those stories today. It is our responsibility to collect them, to color them vividly, to send them around, to make them real to those who are not watching, those who don’t understand what is happening, who would like to believe that this does not happen in the United States of America to its own citizens.
The decision by the Supreme Court approving of this law was atrocious; a Democratic Congress and President will presumably be able to pre-empt similar state laws under the Voting Rights Act, authorized by Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under Rehnquist and Scalia, the Supreme Court requires that Congress make factual findings, before acting to secure equal protection and due process under this section, showing that there is a serious problem requiring such a solution. (That debasement of the Constitution is a story for another day.) We can look all over Indiana tomorrow for evidence justifying that future law.
The Supreme Court did do us a favor, though, in releasing this decision in time for it to apply to the Indiana primary. It means that we don’t have to wait until November to see how bad, how tragic, how fundamentally undemocratic, a law such as this is. But what they have provided us is merely an opportunity; they have not ensured that people will notice what is real, what is happening to our fellow citizens, how we lurch away from democracy. They have not ensured that people will recognize this problem for what it is before it helps a minority of voters to elect John McCain this fall over a majority of voters who wanted to vote against him.
That is our job.
If you are in or near Indiana and can do so today — perhaps unless you’re actively involved in turning out the vote for Obama, though in some ways I’d consider it more important for some people to do this than for all people to do that — please get out there, with a note pad and a camera, and talk to voters who are turned away, mystified, from the polls for lack of proper identification.
Gather the evidence. You may want to print out this page with the rules about the new law. Talk to people leaving the polling booth; if they look upset, ask them if they were denied the chance to vote. Take their names if they’re willing, walk some distance away and take their photos if they don’t mind the publicity (although don’t push for that, as you don’t want to be accused of intimidation yourself.) Even if the complaint is anonymous, write it down: time, location, facts. You may want to remind them, if the poll workers did not, that they can vote on a provisional ballot and come back with ID within 10 days — inconvenient as that is, of course. Learn and prepare to teach to others the terrible lesson in voter suppression will be taught today.
We need to collect individual stories and make sure that people see these sorts of laws for what they are. This, after all, is only the beginning of the political hurricane season of voter suppression. The most destructive, and most decisive, storm arrives in November, and the sponsors of laws such like this hope for it to destroy everything we hold dear.
Imagine if it were you in Indiana. Imagine they were trying to take away your vote. Imagine the real.