By David Lias
Following Tim Johnson’s announcement Tuesday that he had decided to end a political career that has spanned nearly four decades, I had to take a moment, upon returning to the office, to go back in time.
I turned to the November 1986 Plain Talk, certain to find a big story splashed across the front page telling the world of Johnson’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
His win was mentioned, mainly in a headline on the front page of the Nov. 5, 1986 Plain Talk that reads, “Johnson takes U.S. House easily.” The story devoted its first paragraph to stating that Johnson defeated Dale Bell, a Republican from Spearfish, in a short story dealing with local county commission and legislative races.
In his hometown, at least, Tim Johnson’s Congressional career began very quietly. His press conference in Vermillion this week, in which he announced his pending retirement, was the opposite, garnering attention from across the state and nation.
This short trip back in time got me to thinking about how much the political and technological landscape in South Dakota has changed over the years.
Technology has made the voting process easier – for the people who have the task of counting the ballots after they are cast.
Ironically, the same can’t be said for the simple task of casting a ballot. Back in the 1980s (and I’m really stretching my memory here) I believe you merely had to mention your name to a poll worker. When she found that, yes, you indeed were registered, you were handed a ballot to fill out. Pretty simple.
Today, in South Dakota, you must present photo identification before you are allowed to vote. The process has become a bit complicated.
Prior to the 2006 election, no state ever required a voter to produce a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. Indiana in 2006 became the first state to enact a strict photo ID law, a law that was upheld two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
After that, it became more difficult to vote in this country. And in just the last year or so, voting requirements have gotten tougher across the nation.
The first voter ID law was passed as early as 2003, but momentum has picked up in recent years. In 2011 alone, legislators in 34 states introduced bills requiring voters show photo ID – 14 of those states already had existing voter ID laws but lawmakers sought to toughen statutes, mainly to require proof of photo identification.
South Dakota currently is lucky – to an extent. We are a “non-strict photo ID state,” – meaning South Dakota voters are requested to show photo ID but can still vote if they don’t have one. However, they likely may be asked to sign affidavits affirming their identity or provide a signature that will be compared with those in registration records.
A report published in 2011 by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law notes that big Republican gains in the 2010 midterms turned voter ID laws into a “major legislative priority.” Aside from Rhode Island, all voter ID legislation has been introduced by Republican-majority legislatures.
An analysis by News21 in August 2012 also found that lawmakers proposed 62 photo ID bills in 37 states in the 2011 and 2012 sessions, with multiple bills introduced in some states. Ten states have passed strict photo ID laws since 2008, though several may not be in effect because of legal challenges.
More than half of the 62 bills were sponsored by members or conference attendees of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington, DC-based, tax-exempt organization.
Civil rights groups note that voters without a driver’s license or the means (a birth certificate or Social Security card) to obtain free ID cards at a state motor vehicles office could be disenfranchised. (South Dakota’s Indian reservations quickly come to mind.)
They claim that ALEC pushed for photo ID laws because poor Americans without ID are likely to vote against conservative interests – a claim that authors of the Voter ID bills deny.
Groups like ALEC, it appears, are doing their best to find every conceivable way to give Republicans an advantage in 2014. Had the political playing field been so unfairly skewed nearly three decades ago, we South Dakotans may have been robbed of Tim Johnson’s long, distinguished service.