As a genuine American hero of the civil rights movement, John Lewis of Georgia could hold an honored seat at either party’s national convention. As it was, speaking in Charlotte to his fellow Democrats, Lewis moved the crowd with the account of his beatings near that city during the Freedom Rides of 1961.
But however revered the congressman’s record for civil rights is, his blistering critique of new voter identification laws was, we think, a bit overblown.
Not that his complaint is without some substance: With voter fraud a rare crime, some Republican-led legislatures around the country have used that excuse to overhaul voting procedures with an eye to partisan advantage.
“They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the votes,” Lewis said. “I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived this before. Are things really that dire?
In Louisiana, use of a photo identification for voting has not been an undue burden. Certainly, we deplore the kinds of games that some states have seen this year; in Pennsylvania’s legislature, a GOP leader said that voting law changes were aimed at defeating President Barack Obama.
If there is anything that should be kept from political gamesmanship, it is voting rights, as Lewis said. We hope and expect the federal authorities will step in, under the Voting Rights Act, when state laws seek partisan advantage by restricting access to the polls.
But how many people who are going to turn out to vote in the first place are likely to be without a driver’s license or some other identification? States should issue free voter identification cards, so that even the poorest citizens can get one and then cast a ballot.
The problem with Democrats’ turnout issues — except in some extreme cases, such as in Pennsylvania — lies less with the rules than with the party’s appeals. If Democrats give poorer people a program they can believe in and credible candidates, then a photo ID isn’t going to be an insuperable barrier to getting out the vote.