Before November's election, I travelled the country, in part with the non-partisan voter mobilization non-profit Project Vote, meeting Latino voters, including Hispanic evangelicals in a West Cleveland neighborhood that doesn't normally see outsiders unless a crime has been committed.
I walked blocks where Puerto Ricans have settled in Orlando.
I also went to Phoenix, Arizona where for the first time some Latina high school students registered to vote.
Concerned they would be unable to sign up, these young women showed up with what they had--a school ID and their word that they are U.S. citizens.
Although not sufficiently documented, they were unafraid.
Until this week's Supreme Court's decision, this wouldn't have been enough. Arizona's law demanded in person voter registration requirements such as presenting a birth certificate. This is an extra layer to what the federal government requires--claiming U.S. citizenship on a mail-in postcard with the incentive to tell the truth or face persecution for committing perjury.
Maybe because I'm the daughter of immigrants, I default toward always carrying the equivalent of a filing cabinet of documents:
Here's my birth certificate, my utility bill, my Brownie sewing patch, and my first Gold Star on a 2nd grade spelling test.
And if I'm inside Washington's beltway too long and become judgmental because someone doesn't have, for example, a driver's license, I remember when I was mugged at gunpoint and my bag was stolen, with EVERYTHING in it. I wasn't able to travel outside the country to cover breaking news because my passport was sitting in a dumpster. If this crime had happened during an election and DC required some kind of official identification to vote, I would have been out of luck because the only document not stolen was my birth certificate. It lies in a safe box somewhere in my hometown on the other side of the country.
Since Proposition 200 passed in 2004, more than 30,000 Arizonans were denied their constitutionally protected right to vote. Here's the kicker: a high percentage of these rejections are WRONG.
Which way will the Supreme Court go with this month's other big voter rights ruling--Shelby Co. v. Holder which I write about in Latinas' Vote Under Fire? That case weighs whether areas with a dark civil rights past such as Alabama, parts of Florida, and yes, Arizona, need permission from the federal government to change their local election laws.
If the argument goes:
...then we must evaluate a connected theory: that nefarious elements are trying to tip elections through the casting of ineligible votes and must be stopped. Read: non-citizens or "illegals" (which doesn't mean Albanians but Latinos), dead people, and dogs. Don't believe me? Read this report by the Brennan Law Center.
The (rhetorical) question is not if someone who is ineligible and knowingly and purposefully votes should be persecuted to the extent of the law. Rather, how significant a threat is voter fraud? Digging into the data and investigating the allegations yield a small percentage of voter fraud and even those who fall in this sample likely voted, not to intentionally "steal" an election but because they didn't update their addresses after moving or thought they were U.S. citizens because they were brought here as infants.
It is true that elections are tight and every vote counts. But does finding a few bad ballots trump the constitutionally protected right of the 30,000 Arizonans who were denied theirs or the millions of others living in the states and counties covered by the Voting Rights Act? If you look at the local officials and organizations filing these lawsuits, you have to ask yourself, who is trying to tinker with the results of an election by controlling access to participation?
The constitution needs to be protected. But let's remember that the constitution exists to protect the rights of the "little guy," or the "little gal," such as the Latina high school students I met in Arizona.
UPDATE: Republished in Huffington Post Politics on June 19, 2013.