Voter ID is a Queer Issue

This article was originally posted on the In Our Words blog.

It is currently mandatory in 31 states to show a form of identification before voting at the polls. Of the fifteen states that require photo identification, only seven will allow the voter to prove their identity through another list of criteria. That means that in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin, you are unable to vote without a photo ID, and more states are trying to get similar legislation passed before the 2012 presidential election. [1]

Proponents for strict voter ID laws argue that this rule will prevent “election fraud,” an ominous-sounding phenomenon that has little to no evidence of actually being a problem. What is more likely, particularly after taking into account that most voter ID advocates are conservatives, is that rich, white men in power want to take all measures to maintain that power. And one of the easiest ways to maintain power is to deny citizenship to marginalized members of society who tend to vote for more liberal candidates.

If there was any doubt that fear of “election fraud” was actually code for fear of “brown people,” consider this disturbing image used in the Minnesota efforts to pass voter ID.

According to the head of the Minnesota Majority, the main group backing the amendment in Minnesota, these images are meant to represent “dead voters [ghosts/zombies] and fictitious identities [superhero]” and “[t]he prison-striped figure refers to the problem of felons voting…and the mariachi character represents illegal immigrants.” [2] In the same breath, he wondered how people could possibly say that the amendment had racist implications.

Of course, this amendment is undeniably racist and harkens back to the days of Jim Crow when blacks were barred from voting. In response to the recent influx of voter ID legislation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) announced that it would seek support to fight it from the United Nations Human Rights Council. [3]

That Voter ID is a matter of human rights is certain. The denial of full citizenship to members of the minoritized public sphere happens in subtle and insidious ways that works to suppress the voice of those who are most victimized by the maintenance of the status quo.

And the denial of full citizenship is something with which queers are entirely familiar. While the mainstream LGBT movement begs to be included in the public sphere through a marriage license, it does so without interrogating the ways that the very system works to deny other minorities access to full personhood through other, more violent means of exclusion. The mass incarceration of black men and the war on “illegal” [brown] immigrants erase entire populations from our so-called “democracy,” and, in doing so, enables the continuation of systemic racism. Acknowledging similar relationships to oppression is important, but it is equally important to acknowledge that some of those prisoners and immigrants are queer themselves.

In addition, this act could also potentially harm the transgender population. If voters are required to present an ID that matches their appearance, those transfolk who no longer present as they did on their licenses may be denied access to the polls.

This is a queer issue not just because it’s a matter of solidarity—it’s a matter of survival.

I have to admit it’s a bit odd for me to be this fired up about voting. It was not so long ago that I identified as a full-fledged anarchist, and every November would remind people that “our dreams won’t fit inside their ballot boxes,” and that, as Emma Goldman noted, “If voting changed anything they’d make it illegal.”

But it’s Emma’s words that actually make this seem so necessary. They are making it illegal. This law structurally denies voting-rights to a population that is proving to be a threat to the hegemonic order.  Conservatives wouldn’t be pushing for it so hard, if they weren’t afraid. And although a vote is not a revolution, it is, if nothing else, a strategic move for power.

In Freedom With Violence: Race, Sexuality, and the US State (2011), Chandan Reddy argues that we think about the exclusions of particular racial and sexual subjectivities as “not about rights, equality, or identity” but rather “it is about the speech of bodily groups that are the material foundations of the US nation-state” (p. 218). This is the difference between having a voice and having access to legible speech. The former can be ignored, but the latter must be recognized. The Voter ID Act is a tool that functions to continue a cycle of racist, classist, heterosexist exclusion, and queers should be some of the loudest voices that demand it be stopped.

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