WASHINGTON — There has been a decided shift in how Democrats talk about voter ID over the past few weeks, and new comments from former Attorney General Eric Holder illustrate the change.
Holder, who served under President Barack Obama, said Thursday he could support voter ID laws if they were administered fairly.
“What I oppose is the overly prescriptive way in which states — generally Republican states — have indicated that which is acceptable [as a form of ID],” Holder said in testimony before the House Administration Committee. “If you expand the number of things somebody can use to prove they are who they claim to be, I could support voter ID.”
Holder reiterated that if the required IDs were made widely available, he “could see supporting voter ID measures.”
“But when you have that problem in Texas,” he said, “I’ve got problems with that.”
He was referring to Texas’s partisan use of its voter ID law, in which state Republicans made it illegal for college students to use their IDs to vote but allowed gun owners to use their gun permits to do so. This uneven application of voter ID has drawn the ire of Democrats who have then included voter ID laws more generally in the list of things that count as voter suppression.
In 2012, then-Attorney General Holder likened the Texas voter ID bill to a Jim Crow-era measure to make it harder for African Americans to vote. “Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them, and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them,” Holder said in a speech to the NAACP. “We call those poll taxes.”
But as the Senate seeks to pass voting rights legislation, the rhetoric around voter ID from leading Democrats has shifted and become even more supportive than Holder’s conditional statement.
“No one has ever objected to having to prove who you are to vote. It’s been part of our nation’s history since the inception of voting,” Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who is probably the most prominent voting rights advocate in the country, said last week.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., similarly said he had “never been opposed to voter ID.” “I don’t know anybody who believes that people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are,” he said.
The reality is that the rhetoric that Democrats have used around voter ID has given the strong impression they have opposed it wholesale, even if they have at times said they don’t oppose it if it's handled fairly. There has been nuance to the positions of many Democrats, but their emphasis has been on the ways that voter ID has been abused.
“I think it has shifted a bit,” Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the moderate Democratic advocacy group Third Way, told Yahoo News.
It is true that voter ID has been used unfairly at times by Republicans to suppress the vote. It is also true that it is a solution to a crime that is incredibly rare: voter impersonation, in which a person assumes the role of someone else to cast their vote. The infrequency of this type of cheating has been demonstrated by numerous studies, including from the conservative Heritage Foundation.
On the other hand, the idea of voter ID seems like common sense to most voters, who consistently tell pollsters they favor it.
Democrats have felt popular support in the voting rights debate for a few years, and they have not felt the need to make their rhetoric more nuanced by saying they oppose unfair use of voter ID but support it when the IDs are easily and widely accessible to all voters. And at times, Democrats have simply lumped voter ID in with policies they describe as thoroughly unfair and suppressive.
But the issue has apparently become one item they are willing to stop fighting about in a quest to win over Senate Democrats like Joe Manchin, the West Virginia moderate who has proposed including voter ID in a compromise voting rights bill. Manchin’s proposal would allow those without photo ID to use a document such as a utility bill to verify their identity.
And there are greater concerns as well for voting rights advocates, such as the raft of proposals by Republican state legislatures — some of which have already passed into law — that would make it easier for GOP politicians in those states to meddle with or even overturn the results of future elections, after a 2020 election in which then-President Donald Trump attempted to lie and bully his way into throwing out his own defeat at the hands of voters.
“Rhetorical excess is a danger when things are bad,” Bennett, the Third Way co-founder, said. The rush of changes to voting laws in mostly Republican states “isn’t ‘Jim Crow on steroids,’” as President Biden himself has called it, Bennett said. “People are not being murdered by mobs.”
“But it’s seriously dangerous, not only because people are being denied their rights, but also because our democracy — which has not been in real peril since the Battle of Gettysburg — is in real peril right now,” Bennett said. “That has never been true in our lifetimes or our grandparents’ lifetimes, but it is right now.”
The voting changes have been a mixed bag: a combination of measures to roll back expansions made during the pandemic, along with other measures — such as those in Texas and Georgia, both of which have so far been defeated in the state legislatures — to make it harder for Black churchgoers to vote after services on Sundays. The laws have been passed by Republicans who for the most part have said they are trying to shore up the integrity of the election system. But the 2020 election was heralded by nonpartisan experts and even Trump’s own top officials as the most secure and clean in American history.
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