Taking heat for doing what’s right

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Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking last Friday at the Equal Justice Works annual conference, noted that he wanted the legacy of his leadership of the Department of Justice to be recognition of their willingness “to take some heat for doing that which was right."

I wish that other legal figures were prepared to do the same.  Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit, the federal appellate court for our region, has come under scrutiny recently for stating in his book, Reflections on Judging, that he pleads guilty to having written the majority opinion upholding Indiana’s requirement that prospective voters prove their identity with a photo ID.  He called this a law that is “now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention,” thereby undermining his earlier finding approving the law because it furthered a legitimate state purpose.

Many media establishments reported the judge’s admission as a milestone in the debate over photo ID laws.  In response to the huge attention from the media, Judge Posner today wrote in The New Republic that he “did not ‘recant’ on voter ID laws.”  Though this is a little confusing given the words on the pages of his own book, what is more important than focusing on whether Judge Posner supports photo ID laws, or whether the Indiana case was wrongly decided, is the very fact that he acknowledged the invidious intent behind such laws.

For many years, supporters of photo ID laws have claimed that their motivation in passing photo ID laws is to prevent voter fraud.  However, some photo ID law supporters have occasionally slipped and revealed a very different reason for these laws: political gain. For example, Pennsylvania’s GOP House Majority Leader, Mike Turzai revealed partisan motivations for the law when he explicitly stated that the introduction of a photo ID law in Pennsylvania would allow Mitt Romney to win the state.  That Judge Posner is prepared to identify the falsity of the voter fraud justifications is a noble thing, and something behind which he should be prepared to stand.

The evidence that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to get a complying government-issued photo ID was most starkly shown in the recent Texas election.  When Judge Sandra Watts tried to vote last Tuesday, she had to take the additional step of swearing a voter's affidavit before voting,* because her driver’s license lists her maiden name as her middle name, while her voter registration card uses her real middle name.

Of course it’s not just judges who have trouble getting the ID they need to vote. As the Brennan Center for Justice has shown, minority and rural voters are the worst off, with photo ID issuance locations frequently concentrated in white urban areas; often they are many miles from where voters are located, with limited public transportation options and limited hours of operation.

Photo ID laws disenfranchise many by taking away at least some citizens’ fundamental right to vote. Even more concerning is the unequal effect these laws have by most impacting people-- minorities, disabled voters, the elderly, youth, and women-- who are already underrepresented in the political process.  This is all the more concerning given that citizens, including those who have long exercised their right to vote, are being disenfranchised not for a real purpose, but for political reasons. Even Judge Posner has now recognized that the intent behind these laws is widely regarded as voter suppression. 

We hope Judge Posner and all those who see the threat photo ID laws pose to our democracy are prepared to take heat for doing what’s right: speaking out against these laws and the politicians misleading the public about their real intent.

*An earlier version of this blog stated that Judge Watts had to vote a provisional ballot, but this has now been corrected.