Why voter ID is wrong

At the polling place, voting is about trust. It's about who we are

Published September 14, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Citizen of a Democracy,

Since you didn't ask me what I think about voter ID laws such as the ones in Pennsylvania, naturally I thought I would tell you. It's just my opinion, and I am sort of a weirdo, but it's what I think.

The act of voting is an existential ritual. It says, I matter. I exist. I count. For that reason, recent moves by states to restrict voting strike me as not only wrong but deeply offensive.

I have a personal stake in the ritual of elections. Shortly after my wife and I bought our house in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco, we were standing in our garage when a man in a tweed jacket ducked in, looked around and said, "This looks like it could be a polling place." Thus began our career as election officials.

Being election officials and hosting a polling place in our garage taught us a lot.

Did we see voter fraud? We saw operational chaos. We saw malfunctions. But we did not see fraud.

It's important to understand what happens on Election Day, at least in our city. Nearly 2,500 people are pressed into temporary service in clerical roles for which they are briefly trained and sometimes temperamentally unsuited. This alone is an act of democratic trust for which we ought to congratulate ourselves -- giving important governmental roles to high school students and retirees and the unemployed and trusting that the results will contribute to our collective well-being.

The role requires careful, accurate record-keeping; it requires vigilance and orderliness. When a person who wishes to vote cannot be found on the list, or when someone is in the wrong precinct, or needs help with a ballot, or a machine malfunctions, it is necessary to problem-solve. While one is problem-solving, fellow citizens are standing in line. They become impatient. This induces stress. Under stress, people make errors.

If one has never worked in customer service, has never managed a line of impatient people who do not speak your language, had to manage widely various temperaments in an emotional setting, one may not understand the sheer terror such moments can induce. Some will find the situation unmanageable. Some will walk off the job.

Polling places will then be short. Screw-ups can mount.

A lot can happen. A lot can go wrong.

But voting is more than just gathering individual opinions on important topics. It is, as I say, an existential ritual. It is an act of trust in the people. It is an opportunity to show up and be recognized as a citizen.

It is also a community pageant. On Election Day we see the people we actually live next door to! These are the people with whom we breathe the same air and stand in the same rain, with whom we drive the same roads and ride the same buses, use the same mailboxes and have the same mail woman, the same UPS man and FedEx person. It is important to extend to them some measure of trust. To ask them for ID would be an insult.

These are our kin. These are our fellow countrymen and country-women. They should not be asked for ID.

I do not have to show ID when I walk into a church. I should not have to show ID when I walk into a polling place.

We are not strangers. We are not enemies. We are citizens.

By Cary Tennis

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2012 Elections Pennsylvania Since You Didn't Ask Voter Fraud Voter Id Voting Rights