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Voter ID backers claim opponents are the real racists

A provocative argument from supporters of voting restrictions has gone mainstream: That voting rights advocates are the real racists. Here's what it gets wrong.
Wendy Mena, 18, studies her choices as she votes in her first election in Cary, N.C. on Nov. 6, 2012.
Wendy Mena, 18, studies her choices as she votes in her first election in Cary, N.C. on Nov. 6, 2012.

If you’ve ever read the comment threads on stories about voter ID laws, you may have noticed an interesting argument made by supporters of such laws: That those who oppose requiring voters to have IDs are the real racists, since they must believe minorities aren’t capable of getting the identification they need to vote. 

Lately, that line of thinking has gone mainstream. 

Related: Texas voter ID case tests the Supreme Court

It appeared in stark form in a brief filed last week by the state of North Carolina asking the Supreme Court to reinstate two provisions of its voting law that had been blocked by an appeals court: the elimination of same-day voter registration, and a ban on counting ballots cast in the wrong precinct. Both provisions disproportionately affect minority voters.

The challengers' case, the state argued, rests in part on "assumptions that minority voters are somehow ‘less sophisticated’ than white voters and therefore will not be able to discern the multiple opportunities that North Carolina law continues to provide for them to register and vote ... Plaintiffs claim that ‘less sophisticated’ people, who according to Plaintiffs’ evidence are disproportionately African-American, are less able than non-minorities to understand rules regarding registration and voting opportunities.”

"These assertions amount to a ‘racial classification’ that is ’odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality,’" the brief continued, quoting several past court decisions that condemned racial discrimination, "and ‘threaten to stigmatize individuals by reason of their membership in a racial group and to incite racial hostility.’"

The implication is clear: Arguing that minorities will be disproportionately affected by restrictions on voting is insulting and perhaps even racist.

The Supreme Court ultimately reinstated the provisions, and they’ll be in effect for next month's midterm elections. 

"I believe the argument that opponents of voter ID are racist is incorrect and twists our social science language in an inaccurate fashion," said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the expert plaintiff witnesses accused by North Carolina of making an "odious" "racial classification."

He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing litigation over the North Carolina law.

But the argument is even more explicit in a recent story—headline: “Voter ID Opponents Appear to Believe Minorities Incompetent”—about last week's ruling by a federal judge that struck down Texas’s voter ID law as intentionally racially discriminatory.

“The judge's ruling appears to suggest that black and Hispanic Americans simply don't have the capability that whites have to apply for a government identification card,” wrote's Kristin Tate. The ruling, she added, “speaks volumes about how our federal government sees black and Hispanic communities, that is, as being less able than others to get themselves to a government office once every 12-odd years.”

The charge sounds damning on its face. But, even leaving aside the strangeness of an overwhelmingly white movement accusing groups like the NAACP and LULAC of anti-minority bias, it relies on a clear misreading—willful or not—of the argument being made by those challenging restrictive laws.

Voting rights advocates aren’t making any claims about the personal character or capabilities of minority voters. They’re using social science findings to show that as an objective fact, minorities are simply much more likely than whites to be affected by the restrictions at issue.

In the Texas case, the law’s challengers offered reams of uncontested data showing that minorities lack ID at a much higher rate than whites. And in North Carolina, they presented compelling evidence—again, not disputed by the other side—that minorities take advantage of same-day registration at a higher rate than whites do.

There are many reasons the burden of getting an ID, or registering to vote in advance, is higher for minorities than for whites. It’s a statistical fact that minorities are less wealthy than whites. That means that on average, they have less discretionary time to get an ID or register to vote, and that the costs of obtaining an ID—which in fact are significant, even when the state offers "free" IDs—fall more heavily on them. In the Texas case, a parade of demographers, transportation experts, economic consultants, and others offered social science data to make this point.

And yes, since they’re statistically both poorer and less-educated than whites, minorities are likely to be less “sophisticated” in navigating the political process—a process that requires time and engagement.

In essence, voting rights advocates think about voting restrictions on a system-wide level. It’s not a question of the individual competence, or lack thereof, of individual voters, or even of groups of voters. What matters is how the laws are likely to play out in the aggregate.

To be sure, there’s still the legal question of whether the burdens are so great as to be illegal. But, given the evidence, it’s hard to dispute that those burdens aren’t felt equally across the racial spectrum.

Of course, the idea that it’s those looking to expand opportunities for minorities who are actually guilty of racial bias isn’t limited to the voting rights sphere. After all, it was the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts, who wrote in 2007, striking down a Seattle school desegregation plan: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."