Rights & Privileges–the Voter ID Debate in Minnesota

Yesterday, I was at the Big Stone County Courthouse, casting my absentee ballot in the primary before the special election to fill the seat of our district senator, Gary Kubly, who passed away recently from ALS.

So, I’m down at the courthouse, and the county auditor is preparing my ballot. I’m chatting with another county employee, who’s telling me about how much work and money it’s going to take to do this quick-as-legally-possible special primary and election. “Well,” she sighs, “voting IS a privilege.”

Maybe my Minnesota nice filter isn’t in place yet (if it ever will be) because I all but shout, “voting is a RIGHT!”

I registered to vote when I turned eighteen–even before I got my driver’s license. If I’d had my license, it wouldn’t have been a photo ID because at that time and in that place, drivers licenses didn’t have pictures unless you traveled to specific locations to get a special ID. I took the Freeman’s Oath, my mom cried, and I joined the ranks of engaged and registered voters. It felt important–like an event.

And, when I voted in those first couple of elections after I registered, I didn’t need a photo ID to do it, which was good because I didn’t have one.

Even though all states now have standard picture drivers licenses, it’s important to remember that (as teenagers’ parents and sometimes the cops will remind you) driving is a privilege. You have to pay money and take a test to get that card, and that card (and the privileges associated with it) can be taken away, lost, stolen, defaced, and even faked–as can any other photo ID created by humans and their institutions.

Voting is a RIGHT. A right that cannot be taken away, lost, stolen, defaced, or faked.

Or can it? Convicted felons can’t vote until they’ve served their time. It’s possible to fake a vote, but not nearly as easy or possible as some would have you believe. The few instances of irregularities and problems tend to be very highly publicized, in part because they’re so rare, and in part because a certain contingent of the population wants you to think they’re the norm.

I’ve been listening to Republicans in the Minnesota legislature talk about how even one fraudulent vote disenfranchises another voter–and their argument seems to be that somehow, magically, a photo ID that can be lost, stolen, or faked will prevent all that pretty much non-existent fraud.

For those Republicans to use the word, “disenfranchise” is reprehensible considering how many hundreds and even thousands of voters will be disenfranchised by their constitutional amendment to require a photo ID to vote in this state.

Perhaps those pushing this amendment don’t understand the difference between rights and privileges. I’d wager that’s because many of them haven’t ever had to learn. They haven’t ever had to wonder how they’ll afford the photo ID or the documentation required to get it–or how to arrange the transportation to put it all together. They reside in a world where privileges are never taken away, and so they are taken for granted as “rights.”

They don’t get that a right is not something you have to pay money for (or even something that you can pay money for)–it’s something that is guaranteed for everyone, regardless of their income or situation in life. And regardless of whether or not they’ve jumped through the hoops and paid to get a picture of themselves on an ID card.

Then there’s the other explanation: that supporters of this Voter ID amendment understand very clearly the difference between rights and privileges, and they are working hard to make voting a privilege reserved for those who are most likely to support them. And that is a full-frontal assault on our democracy.

While I don’t ascribe that motive to the slightly alarmed county employee I vigorously corrected yesterday, the diction is crucial in this debate: voting IS a right, and one that does not, and should never, require an attendant privilege to exercise.

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