A disgruntled question to the state at large
This is not in keeping with my overall houses-and-books blog theme, but I nevertheless wish to post this.
My teenage son is readying for his driver’s exam. In order to obtain a driver’s permit in the state of Indiana he needs to submit documents to prove four things: his identity, his lawful status, his residency and his Social Security number. He must provide one or more documents in each of these areas before they will allow him to drive. That’s all fine and well, some readers will say; what’s wrong with that?
When I was a teenager, back in the Pleistocene, a Social Security card and/or a birth certificate were considered ample proof of identity and the people at the BMV were kindly and would smile at a terrified teen. Today, applicants for licenses must run a grim-faced gauntlet of people who have been trained NOT to be kindly, to suspect all applicants of evil-doing, and to make it as hard as possible to obtain a license. We will bring the BMV paperwork including my son’s birth certificate, assorted recent medical bills, last month’s bank statement, last year’s W2 form (thank goodness he had a job, most teens don’t) and his Social Security form. Hopefully this will suffice (we’d be in trouble if he hadn’t been to the doctor lately). Invariably, many applicants are told to return with additional paperwork. 41 different documents are accepted by the BMV to prove identity, lawful status, residency etc. (See http://www.in.gov/bmv/files/SecureID_Documents_List.pdf) My son’s lawful status will be verified by the shadowy and alarming US Department of Homeland Security.
When my son eventually gains his permanent license, he will be photographed. During this process he will be instructed not to smile and to keep his hair off his forehead and tucked well behind his ears, because all photographs taken by the BMV in Indiana are fed into facial-recognition software in order to detect criminals who are on the loose. The photo on his final license will look exactly like a mugshot, because that’s what it is. Despite the fact that law-abiding Hoosier citizens far outnumber criminals, the state assumes the worst of us: that every driver is a potential criminal who must be investigated closely.
The paperwork and the indignity are not the problem, don’t get me wrong. We’ve lived at the same address for 17 years and have plenty of mail to prove who we are: decent law-abiding citizens. But here’s my question: what about poor people who are constantly moving from one domicile to another, and what about homeless people? How do these people go about collecting the necessary paperwork? It costs money to apply for a valid copy of a birth certificate. It costs money to live somewhere long enough to acquire an address to which bills can be sent. It takes money to visit a doctor or to receive bank statements; and if you are unemployed then you have no W2 form. Without these complex layers of paperwork, you can’t get a driver’s license. And without a driver’s license (or a BMV-issued ID card), you can’t vote in Indiana.
Since when did poverty become sufficient reason to deny an American citizen the right to vote?
What this fear-filled and suspicion-ridden process means is this: Indiana does not wish to allow the poor, the unemployed or the homeless to cast votes. Instead, my state has disenfranchised as many lower-class voters as possible. Regardless of whether lower-income people tend to vote Republican or Democrat, to deny them the opportunity to vote is a great evil. The poor have no one to stand up for them or speak in their defense; they are invisible because no one wants to look at them or deal with them. They are met at every corner, every day, with hostility and suspicion. They represent 16% of our state’s population, over a million people. So when did the state decide that lower-class people no longer deserved to participate in the political process of their own land? Are we returning to the situation that prevailed at the beginning of our nation, when only the wealthy property-owners (one out of every ten people) merited a vote?
When I was 16 and earned my driver’s license, I was unspeakably proud to share in a valued privilege of citizenship. But today, as I watch the BMV treat honest people like criminals, and as I contemplate the countless numbers of people who have been disenfranchised through no fault of their own, I’m saddened and deeply disgusted to be a citizen of this repressive state.
[Addendum: this Guardian column by Amy Goodman was published two weeks after this post: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/dec/28/republicans-voter-rights-suppression]