An unnecessary hardship

Last modified: 4/12/2012 12:00:00 AM
Unfortunately, the Legislature is again considering changes to New Hampshire's voting laws that would interfere with full participation in civic life by people with disabilities.

Senate Bill 289, being considered this week in the House Election Law Committee, would require photo identification in order to obtain a ballot on Election Day. People who failed to meet identification requirements could vote only if they completed a sworn affidavit. They would then be contacted by the secretary of state's office and, if they failed to respond appropriately, subjected to investigation by the attorney general's office.

Passing this legislation would be a mistake, both because there is no fraud problem that needs fixing, and because it would almost certainly suppress the vote of older people and people with disabilities.

There is no evidence of a serious problem of voter impersonation in New Hampshire. Representatives of the attorney general and secretary of state have repeatedly testified that at most a few such cases may have occurred in the past decade or two, and there has been absolutely no evidence that the outcome of any New Hampshire election was ever in danger of being affected by voter fraud. The chances of voter fraud affecting a New Hampshire election is almost certainly lower than of a voter being struck by lightning. This legislation is truly a solution in search of a problem.

Delays, short and long

What could we expect from imposition of a photo ID requirement at the polls? First, most of us will be likely to experience new delays. Even taking a few seconds per voter to request, retrieve and examine identification will slow the process, which may be a particular problem in busier polling places.

For people without identification, voting will take considerably longer, as they will have to await preparation and execution of a sworn affidavit. Presumably, this will involve waiting in another line in most polling places. Perhaps more important, the experience will be one of being singled out for different treatment - something people with disabilities experience far too commonly.

The response to these objections seems obvious to proponents of the bill: Everyone should simply secure photo identification. But people with disabilities have a much tougher time doing that than most people.

A larger proportion of people with disabilities are non-drivers to begin with. Mobility or sight impairments alone put driving out of reach for some. For many others, poverty keeps them from owning a car and securing a license. Only a third of people with disabilities have full- or part-time employment, and they are twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to live on a household income of $15,000 or less. That poverty can make it prohibitive to get transportation to government offices to obtain certified copies of the documents needed to get a non-driver's identification card. Many people with significant mobility impairment have to arrange for - and often pay for - special transportation whenever they leave their homes.

Given the cost and time needed to secure identification, many people with disabilities will continue to go without it. Faced with the extra time and embarrassment of being treated differently at the polling place, to say nothing of their reactions to being contacted by the secretary of state or attorney general, many of them will be discouraged from voting.

Even changes in the weather can have significant effects on voter turnout, so we should not be surprised that delays and embarrassment will cause many to stay home. That's not good for our democracy.

Rights of a minority

It is understandable that most middle-class Americans without disabilities have a difficult time understanding objections to voter ID proposals. We all have a difficult time appreciating the perspective of those who have a very different life experience than ours. But when lawmakers legislate in an area affecting the rights of any minority, they have a special responsibility to understand the impact of their decisions.

New Hampshire citizens contact the Disabilities Rights Center every day about obstacles placed before them as they try to do the simple things that allow participation in the mainstream of society - visit businesses, apply for jobs, and move about their communities. We have made significant progress as a society, with growing appreciation of every person's potential and legal advances such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nevertheless, people with disabilities often still must work to be included in experiences that others take for granted. Let's not make it more difficult for them to exercise the most basic of civil rights - the right to vote.

(Michael Skibbie is policy director at the Disabilities Rights Center in Concord.)

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