American Exceptionalism, Yuma and Kris Kringle

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“American exceptionalism” is the notion that our form of democracy is unique (and superior) based on our egalitarianism, individualism, and populism, and our mission is to spread American democracy to the rest of the world.

Back to this in a minute.

I recently read a novel set in New York City in the 1840s. One anecdote told of men growing beards before election day. Then they’d vote in the morning with a full beard, at noon with a mustache, and in the afternoon clean shaven.

From such lore, you might believe voter fraud is a big problem and eliminating it with photo IDs sounds beguilingly simple. OK, there is no evidence that voter fraud by individuals is a problem. Repeated studies show remarkably low numbers of such cases. If elections are being rigged or stolen, it is politicians, election officials or judges, not individual voters, who are doing it.

Still, how could any reasonable person oppose such a straightforward idea as photo IDs? Heck, they even use photo IDs in your kid’s club soccer league to keep out the ringers.

I’ll even admit a photo ID isn’t very hard to come by. When he was 19, my son and his friend Todd drove from La Jolla to Yuma one July to pick up Arizona photo IDs. They had discovered someone at UCSD could alter Arizona IDs to turn you 21. The only hurdle between them and their photo IDs was a broken car air conditioner. Even that hadn’t been a big deal when they left La Jolla, though it became a hot one by the time they hit Ocotillo.

Of course, take away the fraternity brother to explain the ropes, eliminate access to wheels, and cut out the incentive to meet coeds in bars, and getting a photo ID can be a hassle. To complicate things, not every photo ID is acceptable. The one from your fitness center, your college, your nursing home, or your employer might get rejected at the polling place. And if you didn’t need the ID last election and nobody warned you, election day is too late.

That’s what advocates of these photo ID laws are counting on. They have looked at the statistics and discovered certain voter profiles are less likely to have drivers licenses or other officially issued photo IDs on election day. In close elections in a few swing counties, that’s enough to steal an election.

I’ve been voting for almost 50 years and never needed a photo ID. A signature matched to the voters’ roll has been enough. To register you needed proof of residence and a birth certificate to show citizenship. In some places, a cancelled letter delivered by the Post Office could be proof of residence. Remember how that worked for Kris Kringle in the movie “Miracle On 34th Street.”

A significant portion of voters without photo IDs are minorities, so racism is part of the debate. The 1965 Voting Rights Act has been used to toss voter ID laws in Southern states with histories of “Jim Crow” laws.

However, the Act doesn’t apply in places like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, which didn’t have Jim Crow laws in 1965. New “Tea Party” majorities in those states have seized the opportunity to to turn back the clock to 1965. They seem to think it’s just a clever way to game the system and deny Jim Crow or Kris Kringle the right to vote in the 2012 election.

Try explaining this version of American exceptionalism to your grandkids on Nov. 7.

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