The issue of voting rights is beginning to gain some suction with the mainstream media, a trend that should be encouraged. One idea that should not be encouraged is former President Bill Clinton's suggestion that Social Security cards should have a photo option, in order to defang voter I.D. laws that address a nonexistent problem, and which have disproportionate impact on minorities. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about the concept at Friday's daily briefing, and his answer demonstrates why Clinton's idea isn't just wrong, it is dangerous.
The Social Security idea was put forward by Andrew Young and President Clinton last week at the LBJ library, but it was Clinton's mention that prompted Fox News' Ed Henry to ask Carney for a White House reaction.
"We haven’t had an opportunity to review all of the implications of that idea that Bill Clinton and others have put forward," Carney replied, "But generally speaking on the question of voting rights, President Obama believes we should be making it easier, and not harder for every eligible citizen to vote."
The problems with the Social Security idea itself are many, beginning with the obvious fact that since most people get them shortly after they're born, they'd have to train poll workers to know you by your fontanel. As the LA Times' Michael Hiltzik points out, voter ID is just one spoke in a constantly-spinning wheel of voter suppression tactics that Republicans are pushing, and have been pushing for a long time. Even if you took care of the photo ID objection, it wouldn't matter, because it is a bogus objection, and they'd just switch to something else, like closing polling places, eliminating early voting hours, purging voter rolls. Hiltzik also thinks, correctly, that we shouldn't back down:
Perhaps the worst aspect of a Social Security photo ID is that it represents a capitulation to a dishonest and sleazy campaign to disenfranchise Americans and keep them out of the voting booth by intimidation. Civil rights leaders like Young and Clinton should not give in to the threadbare rationales for tightening the rules offered by the enemies of voting rights. They've been fighting too long to secure those rights to back down now.
These are all excellent reasons to dislike the idea, but the most important reason is that a photo (even a recent one) on a Social Security card would not satisfy the requirements of the voter suppression laws they're meant to satisfy. Many of these laws require not just a state or federal government-issued photo ID, but one with an expiration date. This has the effect of excluding most student ID cards, and it would also exclude Social Security cards, photo or not.
What's dangerous about this idea, as put forward by Bill Clinton and referenced by Carney, is that it gives people the impression that the voter suppression effort is more reasonable than it is, and feeds into the dishonesty that's used to promote it. People already have a hard enough time understanding that requiring a photo ID is not reasonable or necessary, without also being misinformed about what these voter ID laws really require, which is whatever identification they think you don't have.
There is a kernel of a good idea here, though, in that the solution to voter suppression needs to be a federal one: an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enumerates protections to the right to vote. A great place to start would be to automatically register every eligible citizen to vote, maybe using some sort of federal database that already keeps track of every eligible citizen.