Debate Rages Over Virginia's New Voter ID Law on Asian-American Community

Debate Rages Over Virginia's New Voter ID Law on Asian-American Community

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VIRGINIA --The humble photo ID. You show it at banks to deposit money. You show it at bars to get your drink. You show it before you board a plane. But in the last couple of years, the photo ID has been embroiled in a behind-the-scenes political tug of war.
The tug of war goes all the way back to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act required certain states with a history of enacting racially discriminating voting laws (read: poll taxes) to obtain federal pre-clearance from the Justice Department before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices.
That changed in 2013. The Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in a decision called Shelby County versus Holder stating that this requirement was unconstitutional because it was outdated and created an “impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states.” Immediately following the decision a flurry of states that had been previously required to obtain pre-clearance passed a slew of restrictive voting laws including laws that required voter photo IDs and laws that eliminated same day voter registration. Many have argued that these laws are unfairly discriminatory towards minority voters. For example, in October, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge Judge Richard Posner issued this sharp rebuke in regards to Wisconsin’s voter photo ID law: “[A] number of conservative states try to make it difficult for people who are outside the mainstream, whether because of poverty or race or problems with the English language, or who are unlikely to have a driver’s license or feel comfortable dealing with officialdom, to vote…”
Christine Chen, the Executive Director of a National Asian American voting rights advocacy organization called APIAVote, has also spoken out against the photo ID laws – specifically one that has recently passed in Texas: “The Supreme Court’s ruling [on Texas’ photo ID law] further aggravates efforts to bring more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the polls, many of whom are first time voters this November,” said Chen.
Virginia is one of the states affected by the Shelby vs Holder case and it was one of the states to have enacted a new photo ID law after the decision. Previously, voters were permitted to show utility bills, bank statements, or other forms of non-photo identification. While the new photo ID law is not the most strict in the country, says Wesley Joe, an adjunct assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, there is concern that this new law is just the beginning of a slippery slope of laws that will further restrict the voting rights of minority voters. “It’s not the worst, but it’s not a good thing,” Joe said. “It may be an incremented strategy…there’s always the potential for death by a thousand cuts.”
Opponents of the law say that the new voter photo ID law amounts to a poll tax, citing the recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a study titled “Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws” that found that the direct costs of obtaining a government issued ID in 17 ranged from $14.50 to $58.50. Others are concerned that there will be a lot of confusion at the polls about what IDs will be accepted. Tram Nguyen at Virginia New Majority, a progressive nonprofit organization, said she was talking to a voter over the phone who erroneously believed that he could still use his voter registration card as a form of ID.
There is legitimate concern about any new law that has the potential to deter Asian Americans from the polls – Asian Americans already have one of the lowest voter turnout rates of all racial minority groups. Although Asian Americans recently passed Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants to the United States according to the Pew Research Center, only 31% of eligible voters turned out for the 2010 midterm elections. Many Asian Americans cite the lack of time as their main reason for not voting, but Genie Nguyen says that language access is also a problem. Nguyen is the president of a local nonprofit organization based in Virginia called Voice of Vietnamese Americans. Nguyen produces an in-language radio program for the Vietnamese American community in Virginia called “Legislation and our Community” or “Lập Pháp & Cộng Đồng” in Vietnamese. “Language is a problem for those who are not able to read the new law,” Nguyen said. “So we try to educate them about the issues.”
“Plus, a lot of Vietnamese Americans are self-employed and work from 6am to 9pm and have no time to think about [a photo ID].”
However, whether the new voter photo ID will affect the already low Asian American voter turnout rate any more than the lack of in-language materials available remains to be seen. Indeed, the GAO also noted in their report that states with existing voter ID laws such as Tennessee and Kansas, saw a negligible a decline in Asian American voter turnout although it did find a decline in voter turnout of the voter turnout in other minority groups. Furthermore, although Asian Fortune spoke to many voter’s rights and community activists, we were unable to locate an Asian American who did not have a photo ID and was willing to speak about how it affected their ability to vote. This is not to say these people do not exist – several community members who did not wish to be identified pointed out that many immigrants are distrustful of the government and are unwilling to be vocal about their concerns.
However, many Asian Americans not only believe that the new voter photo ID law does not provide an obstacle: they support it. Sung Ae Park, a Korean American and registered Democrat who volunteers as a bilingual election officer with Fairfax County, said that she didn’t see the new voter photo ID law impacting her community.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Park. “As an election officer it makes processing the vote easier,” Park said. “It makes the line faster and it’s easier to match the person with the ID. Plus, there’s more trust in a photo ID.”
Chinese American election officer Charlene Xialing Xu and registered Independent also said that she felt the new photo ID was a good idea. “I think it’s more of a problem that [Asian Americans] don’t have a habit of voting,” she said. “We need to encourage more Asian Americans to vote.”
The debate over the voter photo ID law has obvious political undercurrents: Voter ID laws have all been sponsored by Republicans and passed overwhelmingly by Republican legislatures.
Unsurprisingly, they have also overwhelmingly been opposed by Democratic legislators.
Republican legislators like Delegate Mark Cole who co-sponsored the Virginia bill argue that the bill help preserve the integrity of the election process. Opponents of the laws question how much voter impersonation is actually present. The Brennan Center for Justice argues in its 2007 report “The Truth About Voter Fraud” cites the former director of the Texas Republican Party Royal Masset who told the Houston Chronicle that the voter photo ID law was a political move by Republicans: “Among Republicans it is an “article of religious faith that voter fraud is causing us to lose elections,” Masset said. He doesn’t agree with that, but does believe that requiring photo IDs could cause enough of a dropoff in legitimate Democratic voting to add 3 percent to the Republican vote.”
Whether the new voter photo ID law will have a significant impact on Virginians and whether the law is just the first a series of increasingly prohibitive voter laws remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear in the fervor of debate: who goes to the polls is important. Virginians, you know what to do.
This story is written as part of the voting rights fellowship with New America Media