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The Democrats’ Embarrassing Voter ID Cave

The Democrats are trying to rewrite history on a key voting rights issue. Why?

Screenshot: CNN

Over the course of the past decade, the Democratic Party, civil liberties advocates, and voting rights groups have fought tooth and nail to stop conservative legislatures to enact voter ID laws, with varying degrees of success. But after centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin offered up a “compromise” on voting rights last month, some of those Democrats indicated they were willing to accept voter ID as a condition to pursue broader voting rights reforms.

And now, even though that proposal looks to be dead on arrival, a top Democrat went on TV to claim that actually, the Democrats never opposed voter ID in principle at all.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, the #3 House Democrat who was last seen bowling his way into an Ohio special election to stop former Sanders presidential campaign co-chair Nina Turner from getting elected to Congress, appeared on CNN on July 4 to talk about voting rights and said Democrats were “absolutely” for voter ID laws.

“When I first registered to vote as a 21-year-old, I got a voter registration card, and I always present a voter registration card when I go to vote. That is voter ID,” Clyburn told Dana Bash.

“We are always for voter ID. We are never for disproportionate voter ID,” he added. “When you tell me…a photo for a student for an activity card is not good, but for a hunting license it is good, that’s where the rub is. I don’t know of a single person who is against ID-ing themselves when they go to vote.”

Asked to clarify if he was drawing the line at requiring a voter ID, Clyburn said he wasn’t. “I’m drawing the line at an equitable ID,” he said. “You ought to be able to vote with any ID you have, one being your voter registration card.”

Clyburn isn’t alone. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock said after the Manchin proposal was released that he has “never been opposed to voter ID. And in fact, I don’t know anybody…who believes people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are.” 

Clyburn himself has been all over the place on voter ID in the past. In April 2012, when his home state passed a photo voter ID law, Clyburn compared it to Jim Crow, warning that we “must make sure that people are aware of the danger to our democracy.” A month later, however—and then later again in September—Clyburn said that voter ID is “not a problem.”


Jim Clyburn Should Stop Telling Democrats What Works From His Safe Liberal Seat

But broadly speaking, Democrats have long been opposed to voter ID laws. In 2014, then-Vice President Joe Biden said voter ID laws were an “attempt to repress minority voting masquerading as an attempt to end corruption.” The Obama Justice Department sued to stop these laws from going into effect. Hillary Clinton blamed her 2016 loss in Wisconsin on the state’s voter ID law.

And they had good reason to be opposed to the laws: tens of millions of American voters don’t have photo identification like a driver’s license, and the laws disproportionately target poor people of color for the reasons Clyburn mentioned. As of 2019, for example, a dozen states with voter ID laws on the books did not accept all student IDs in lieu of drivers’ licenses. Not to mention it’s a solution in search of a problem—time and again, election after election has shown that voter fraud does not exist to any substantial degree whatsoever.

But this stance changed last month when Manchin, who has bewilderingly drawn a line in the sand at only taking up voting rights reforms deemed acceptable by the party whose former presidential candidate is still trying to steal the election he lost eight months ago, came out with a “compromise” which includes requiring voter ID with “acceptable alternatives” such as an energy bill to prove who you say you are.

The plan, which among other things would also ban partisan gerrymandering and mandate more than two weeks of early voting, was quickly backed by Democrats including Stacey Abrams, the former and potentially future Georgia gubernatorial candidate who has become the country’s most visible voting rights advocate.

Manchin’s proposal is a give-and-take of liberal and conservative wants, if you were to make the mistake of taking at face value the conservative claim that voter ID laws are about election integrity rather than maintaining power and relevancy. The biggest problem with the plan, accordingly, is that even though the entire goal of Manchin’s “compromise” was to make Republicans happy, they almost immediately dismissed it, some of them for the simple reason that Stacey Abrams had endorsed it.

Because Manchin and others will not vote to break the filibuster in order to protect voting rights—which is fitting, considering the filibuster has historically been used most effectively over the last 150 years as a tool to crush civil rights—the bill as it stands is essentially dead. There’s just one Senate Republican, Lisa Murkowski, who has said she’d vote for the bare-ass minimum step of restoring the Voting Rights Act.

The arguments for flipping so spectacularly on this issue are thin. It’s true that voter ID in general polls well, but so does early voting, and voting by mail. And while it may be a good idea in theory to federalize a voter ID standard and make that standard weak in order to head off stricter state standards, there’s been zero indication from Republicans that they’re willing to back even that.

Which brings us to the biggest problem: without any Republican support for the Manchin compromise, the Democrats are unilaterally disarming on the voter ID issue. They’re getting nothing for it except 2022 Senate ads calling Warnock and other Democrats liars who only used voter ID as a racial cudgel, no matter how unfair that might be.

It doesn’t matter that Jim Clyburn is for a very specific kind of voter ID law where the IDs are made readily available to everyone. The only thing Phil Berger or Robin Vos will take away from this—and rightfully so—is that the Democrats caved and they won an argument that’s been going on for a decade. They will almost certainly use that as a justification for implementing new or even worse voter ID laws. It’s as simple as the Republican Party wanting to make it more difficult to vote because if it’s easier to vote, it’s harder to control the outcome. 2020 proved that; if the Democrats don’t realize the stakes or even how the game is even being played soon, 2022 and 2024 will, too.