It’s hard to believe it has been 17 years since I worked for ACORN as a voter reg/GOTV county coordinator. When I launched Booman Tribune, it had only been two months since I’d left that job. The people I had worked with, the people I had hired, trained and managed, they were still fresh in my mind. Recollections are cloudy and scattered now, and distorted by subsequent experience. But I haven’t forgotten all the lessons those folks taught me, and I learned more in that job than any I ever held.
The office was in a shamefully ramshackle tenement on Broad St. in North Philadelphia. I spent most of my time on the road and in the field, but I did all my hiring and a lot of training in that office. It was a painful experience because the pool of applicants came ill-equipped for employment. They often didn’t have the basics, like a driver’s license, social security card, or any form of picture identification. They didn’t have cars and they didn’t have bank accounts. They often lacked any legitimate work experience, which showed in how they interviewed. Many were also pretty desperate. We had a lot of problems with payroll because everything came through the main office in New Orleans, and when anything went wrong with a paycheck I’d be on the phone with someone I’d never met trying to explain that my worker’s electricity was going to be cut off if they didn’t get their shit together.
I worked with what I had, and together as a team we did a remarkable job or registering voters and then getting them to the polls for John Kerry and John Edwards–although technically we were nonpartisan. Any snobbery I might have had when I came into that job was pretty well scrubbed out of me by the time I moved on. I saw the dignity in the people I worked with, and I came to understand the world they lived in, which was totally unlike my own. I had searing experiences that will never leave me, like the conversation I had with a kid who wanted advice on how to go to college, and when I sat down with him to discuss it, it just became clear that the obstacles were so great that he might as well have asked me to help me land on the moon. Every part of his life was like a tether holding him down, limiting his options, making even the simplest sounding efforts beyond his capacity to achieve. I don’t cry often, but I cried that night after our conversation was over.
He was one of my better workers and had a real talent for convincing people they should vote. But he couldn’t have voted if he’d needed a state-issued photo identification. He had no need for one since he had no bank account and no car, and it was two transfers on the bus to get to the nearest Division of Motor Vehicles where he’d have to pay for a non-driving ID. He was one of the workers whose heat was turned off when his check came late. Getting that ID was never going to be a priority for him and anyone like him.
So, how do you think I feel about Voter ID requirements? I know that in-person voter fraud almost never happens. I know that these laws are designed to disenfranchise my old employee rather than safeguard the integrity of our elections.
Yes, I know that 80 percent of the public, including 62 percent of Democrats, supports this requirement but that’s because they can’t understand why it’s an obstacle to people’s right to vote.
Democratic officeholders can read a poll. They’re ready to give up on fighting against Voter ID laws. What do you think of that?
Even the Republicans are mocking them for it.
Some conservatives say Democrats are now revealing their hypocrisy by suddenly accepting, for strategic reasons, measures they had long decried as racist and slammed Republicans for supporting.
I find this hard to stomach, as you might imagine. But I also get it. Capitulation might make good strategic sense, depending on the details. If it’s a trade that involves automatic registration and making Election Day a holiday, it might even come out as a net gain in the end. The plan Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is bandying about would still allow folks to use a utility bill as proof of identity, and that would avoid the poll tax problem involved in mandating that people spend money on a state-issued card.
My problem is that there is no actual deal in the offing, so the Democrats are softening a principle in exchange for nothing. That’s concerning even if I can understand the rationale.