New York

Schumer’s Identity Politics


Chuck Schumer does his better thinking on his mountain bike. The riding, the air, it clears his mind, he says, and he takes long rides. Over the Brooklyn Bridge, down Ocean Parkway to Coney Island, then back again.

Early in March, New York’s 50-year-old senior senator strolled his blue $75 Toys ‘R’ Us bicycle out from his Park Slope living room, and set off to pedal through the reasons why one of his most important legislative projects to date—an amendment to the Election Reform Bill—was headed straight for the Senate toilets. (With the GOP anxious to flush.) The amendment was basic. Open. Inviting. It would’ve allowed first-time voters to affirm their identities with a signature instead of a driver’s license, a bank statement, or a utility bill, as his GOP colleagues were demanding.

“Sending in a signature alone,” Missouri Republican Kit Bond told him, was “not going to cut the mustard.”

Two weeks ago, the Senate finally agreed to pass the measure. Schumer buckled to conservatives, retired his amendment, and concocted a compromise. But ever since, he and the bill’s co-authors—a motley crew of liberal Democrats aligned with the more draconian members of the GOP—have been drawing fire from civil rights activists. They’re branding the bill as unconstitutional, and vow to challenge the ID provision before the Senate returns from Easter break next week—before any final vote is called and language becomes law.

The issue is minute in detail, grander in scale. Should voters be required to show ID at the polls?

Yes! Absolutely, said the GOP co-authors, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, and Bond, of Appropriations. How else to fight voter fraud? You need ID at the movies, in a bar, and at the airport, they argued. Why not at the polls?

Bond’s taken this issue personally. He’s got to. After all, in his home state a dead man beat John Ashcroft in the 2000 race for governor. Dead aldermen were rising from the graves of St. Louis to register in that election. Even 10-year-old Ritzy Mekler made it to the polls, and she’s a springer spaniel.

“The rolls are bloated with deadwood, literally,” says a Bond spokesperson. “It’s a joke! That’s why Kit is demanding voters show ID—to restore integrity to the system.”

Schumer disagreed. A signature should be sufficient. Any more hurdles would cripple voter turnout, he reasoned, and already too many citizens were not voting. Minorities, recent immigrants, the poor, young voters, the disabled, students who move often, the lazy and forgetful—all key Democratic constituencies—would be disenfranchised. Proper identification is more readily available to a proper class, he argued on the Senate floor, especially in New York City. Fewer than half his voting-age constituents have driver’s licenses, he calculated, and for those with roommates, utility and phone bills are often in others’ names.

Civil rights advocates were behind him. “The bill may be good for the country, but it stinks for New York City,” says Neil Rosenstein, NYPIRG’s woolly election guru and co-chair of the Citywide Coalition for Voter Participation. He calls the idea of requiring ID at the polls “chilling” and sees such a situation as ripe for racial and class divisiveness. And how could ID checks be fairly administered?

“Poll workers are horrible enough as it is,” he says, adding that they often confuse election rules.

Requiring ID could also violate the Voting Rights Act. Todd Cox, counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, says compelling citizens to obtain—and in some cases purchase—ID would be tantamount to a poll tax.

Besides, other advocates argue, the GOP’s electoral logic was misleading. “Voter fraud is a myth,” says Frances Fox Piven, CUNY professor of political science and co-author of Why Americans Still Don’t Vote. Historically, she says, the idea that individuals are the source of systematic fraud is inaccurate. Ambitious voters “stuffing the ballot box” happens only in cartoons and old movies, she adds, and exists as a relic of the country’s cultural imagination.

Real chicanery in modern elections is the opposite of the illusion, Piven says. “Fraud happens by preventing people from voting,” and it happens in many ways. Why are elections still held on workdays? she asks. And why is the process still so confusing and uneven?

“Since 1896, Republicans have been especially eager to impose the most stringent voting rules,” Piven notes. “They’ve always been afraid of ‘discordant’ voters who have different interests, and the potential to create an opposition to business-run politics.”

When Schumer returned to Washington after his weekend retreat in Park Slope, his GOP colleagues accused him of breaking bipartisan trust. His amendment was to blame. Taking to the Senate floor, Bond, the sixth-generation Missourian, said working with the Democrats on the bill had been like loading a wheelbarrow full of frogs.

“I keep thinking I have a wheelbarrow full, and when I come back with the frogs, the wheelbarrow is empty.”

McConnell seemed equally distraught. “The system is broken,” he said. “I’m not terribly optimistic.” Soon, the GOP was threatening to filibuster.

Bond’s staffers, like a pack of pranky fraternity brothers, began tacking up posters around the Capitol—featuring a balding, deer-in-the-headlights Schumer. The charge was heavy: “wanted for killing election reform in the senate. considered extremely quotable and dangerous to bi-partisan deals.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The bill sailed through the House, offering $3.5 billion in federal grants and matching funds for states to buy new voting equipment, adopt new standards, train poll workers, pay them more, and centralize registration rolls.

All that was now at stake. Hopes of employing any of the bill’s provisions for the 2002 election were scant, if not impossible. For the Democratic co-authors, the atmosphere was getting desperate. They called a meeting with national civil rights groups to discuss dropping Schumer’s amendment and moving forward before it was too late.

Disappointed, the advocacy groups refused to grant their blessing. “The bill was supposed to enfranchise citizens, not disenfranchise them,” says Adam Lioz, who represented USPIRG at the meeting. “It was too divisive. All of a sudden, everything was totally off track.”

Later that night, Schumer made his decision. The bill, in its entirety, was “more important than any specific provision.”

He withdrew his amendment.

Then, to satiate the civil rights crowd, he came up with his compromise amendment under which provisional, or affidavit, voting would cover those who don’t have ID. But that solution, activists say, will only create more problems.

“Paper—inherently—is bad,” says Rosenstein. “For voters unfamiliar with the process, provisional ballots can be difficult to fill out. They also create discrepancies of voter intent. A poll worker might be asked to decipher, ‘Is that a circle or a check?’ ” Inevitably, he adds, a paper trail will lead to longer vote counts, which open the process to more tampering.

Should Schumer have withdrawn his amendment in the first place? Politically, some activists admit, he had little choice. Others say he should have spent more time on his bicycle.

“Incumbents, in general, hesitate toward making election reforms,” says Rosenstein, and politicians of both parties don’t fiddle too much with the rules they were elected under. But now in the Senate, he says, they have a last-minute chance to reconsider.

“Would you rather have an open system where voting fraud remains a possibility,” he asks, “or an established practice that will discourage countless numbers of new voters?”

The Latest