The debate over the proposed constitutional amendment requiring photo ID to vote is heating up, and Minnesotans are paying attention. Recent polls showing a nearly 30 point drop in support for the amendment is one clear sign that Minnesotans see that the impact of this proposed change in elections law will have a negative effect on participation and democracy. Among those who recognize this negative impact are our state’s communities of color and American Indians, a population of voters that is growing quickly both here and nationally.
Reports of the amendment making it more difficult for students, the elderly, low-income people, and disabled people to exercise their right to vote are all true, and they all cut across racial lines. Some of these groups will experience greater barriers because of race AND poverty or youth or homelessness, because people of color are disproportionately represented among these populations.
It is difficult not to notice the racial implications of the proposed amendment, when one of the first media messages favoring the amendment included images of a sombrero-wearing “voter” and an African American prisoner “voter,” the suggestion being that “these people” represent the risk of fraud at the polls.
But the shared experience of communities of color is not of fraud. Rather, it is of struggle.
Our struggles, though different in history and context, are connected through the intense desire to truly participate, to belong in this democracy. After first experiencing the loss of home, American Indians were long denied the possibility of participating in the governance of the nation that took over their land. When the Indian Citizenship Act was enacted in 1924, American Indians finally had the right to vote, but held that right alongside the historical tension of having American democracy foisted upon them.
Though African Americans technically won the right to participate in 1869, the discrimination of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other forms of voter suppression were the actual experience until passage of the Voting Rights Act nearly 100 years later in 1965. African Americans know that the true story is the one they experience, not the words on the pages of legal documents.
Asian American communities have also experienced exclusion from the voting process. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act denied citizenship and voting rights to Chinese Americans. The law stayed in effect until 1943. Not until 1952 were first generation Japanese Americans granted the right to become citizens and vote.
For the recent immigrants who have made Minnesota home, being told – incorrectly – that they must speak English to vote or that they cannot have an interpreter with them in the polling booth, can determine how they experience democracy. Some immigrants have left dictatorial systems of government and hold dear the promise of being able to freely cast a ballot in their new home country. Having that right called into question is both disheartening and intimidating.
Our democracy is founded upon a system that left most of us out from the start. Over 150 years we have been working to expand the right to participation. What we have is not perfect. Even as demographics change, people of color and American Indians are starkly underrepresented in all levels of public office. Building participation and building political power go hand in hand. And what we are building only gets stronger by holding up each of our voices, as equal players in defining what democracy means.
Vina Kay is Director of Research and Policy at the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, which is part of the Voices for Voting Rights campaign. Other members of the group include: African American Leadership Forum, Be the Vote Coalition 2012, CAPI, Centro Campesino, Color the Vote, Community Action of Minneapolis, Lao Family Community, Main Street Project, Native Vote Alliance of Minnesota, Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, and Somali Action Alliance. This initiative of multiracial, multicultural organizations is focused on building community power, voice, and access at the polling booth and beyond. www.voicesforvotingrights.org