Do laws that require citizens to present valid identification to vote create an undue hardship? Worse, are they racist? Artur Davis used to think so. He represented Alabama’s 7th Congressional District from 2003 to 2011 and was an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He vigorously opposed voter ID laws.
But now he has changed his mind. In a commentary in the Montgomery Advertiser, Mr. Davis says his home state of Alabama “did the right thing” in passing a voter ID law and admits, “I wish I had gotten it right when I was in political office.”
As a congressman, he says, he “took the path of least resistance,” opposing voter ID laws without any evidence to justify his stance. He simply “lapsed into the rhetoric of various partisans and activists who contend that requiring photo identification to vote is a suppression tactic aimed at thwarting black voter participation.”
Today, however, Mr. Davis recognizes that the “most aggressive” voter suppression in the black community “is the wholesale manufacture of ballots, at the polls and absentee, in parts of the Black Belt.” A region in Alabama known for its dark, rich soil, the Black Belt comprises some of the poorest, predominantly black counties in the state. In 2008, I wrote a case study about a federal voter-fraud prosecution in one of those counties.
Greene County is 80 percent black, and the median household income of residents is only just above the poverty line. Incumbent black county officials had stolen elections there for years, perpetrating widespread, systematic voter fraud. The Democratic incumbents were challenged by black Democratic reformers in 1994 who wanted to clean up local government.
Voter fraud ran rampant that year. Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Justice won 11 convictions of Greene County miscreants who had cast hundreds of fraudulent votes, often by stealing the absentee ballots of poor voters. Mr. Davis knows that “voting the names of the dead, and the nonexistent, and the too-mentally-impaired to function, cancels out the votes of citizens who are exercising their rights” because, as he notes in the Montgomery Advertiser, “I’ve heard the peddlers of these ballots brag about it, I’ve been asked to provide the funds for it, and I am confident this has changed at least a few close local election results.”
There was no question that such tactics changed the election results in Greene County in 1994. But the worst thing from the standpoint of the black reformers who had complained to the FBI was the reaction of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The reformers thought those civil rights organizations would be eager to help those whose elections had been stolen through fraud.
Instead, both organizations attacked the FBI and federal prosecutors, claiming that the voter-fraud investigation was simply an attempt to suppress black voters and keep them from the polls. One of the black reformers, John Kennard, a local member of the NAACP, was outraged enough to write a letter to then-NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. The letter charged the organization with “defending people who knowingly and willingly participated in an organized … effort to steal the 1994 election from other Black candidates.”
Mr. Bond responded by basically telling the reformer to mind his own business and charged publicly that the “sinister forces” behind the prosecution were “part and parcel of an ongoing attempt to stifle black voting strength.” The NAACP Legal Defense Fund even defended the vote-stealers in court. A vice president of the SCLC, Spiver Gordon, said the prosecution was “an attempt to keep black people from exercising their constitutional rights and voting rights.” (That same vice president later pleaded guilty to committing voter fraud in Greene County. He remained treasurer of the SCLC even after his conviction.)
If these outrageous claims sound familiar, they should. The rhetoric is exactly the same kind that is being used today by Bill Clinton, the NAACP and others who oppose voter ID laws. Mr. Davis “was disappointed to see Bill Clinton … compare voter ID to Jim Crow, and it is chilling to see the intimidation tactics brought to bear on African-American, Democratic legislators in Rhode Island who had the nerve to support a voter ID law in that very liberal state.”
The claims about the voter-fraud prosecution suppressing the votes of black citizens in Greene County turned out to be just as false as the same claims being made about voter ID. Turnout of black voters went up after the successful prosecutions because of renewed confidence in the election process. One elderly black voter interviewed during the investigation thanked an FBI agent for what he was doing. Another black voter told the local paper that the only people who were feeling threatened or “suppressed” were the ones who had committed crimes by stealing votes in past elections.
Mr. Davis concludes his remarkably candid commentary by noting that voter ID is “unlikely to impede a single good-faith voter - and that only gives voting the same elements of security as writing a check at the store, or maintaining a library card.” As he says, the case for voter ID “is a good one, and it ought to make politics a little cleaner and the process of conducting elections much fairer. I wish I’d gotten it right the first time.” On that score, he is correct.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). He is a former member of the Federal Election Commission and counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Justice Department.