29.10.12

A Vote for the Voter ID Amendment is a Vote Against Cities

[Voting in Minneapolis, 2008 primaries.]
There are many reasons to oppose the Voter ID Amendment on Minnesota ballots next week. It's unnecessary and expensive. It will disenfranchise students, the elderly, poor people, and people of color, further discouraging them from participating in our democracy. It will mean that Minnesota no longer leads the nation in voter turnout each year. It's dishonest, unclear, and sponsored by corporate oligarchs. It's easily the most depressing and cynical piece of legislation in my living memory, disenfranchising people in a way that hasn't been done since Jim Crow. Few things anger me more than throwing up roadblocks to voting.

But there's another reason that you may not have thought of. The Voter ID amendment will tilt the scales of politics even farther against people living in cities, in favor of suburban home owners. A vote for the amendment is a vote against urban life. Permit me to explain...


The Long Legacy of Jeffersonian Anti-Urban Bias

It's no secret that many of the founding fathers had it out for cities. Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly the worst. Most famously, he said: "I view great cities as pestilential to the morals'." Elsewhere he writes about the connection between rural life and democracy. Jefferson believed that were corrupt and corrupting, that proper citizenship only existed in a context of independent property owners, where each citizen owned their own piece of land. He wrote:
I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get plied upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.

For Jefferson, cities were unorganized and  irrational. They bred  revolutionary chaos. People who lived in dense, unorganized housing could not be trusted to think clearly. As you probably know, the constitution guaranteed voting rights for white males who owned property. Anyone without property was deemed unworthy of participating in democracies.

Sure, things have changed since then. But the anti-urban Jeffersonian bias is still firmly rooted in US policy. During the Great Depression, FDR introduced programs aimed at fostering home ownership, things like the Mortgage Interest Tax Deduction and the (racist, anti-urban) federal mortgage insurance. These policies form a huge policy bias in favor of home ownerships, and against urban density provided by rental housing. From a political perspective, encouraging home ownership was seen as a way to fight against radical left politics. People who owned homes, it was thought, were far less likely to go on strike (or become communists).  Politically and economically, policies supporting home ownership are deeply entrenched within the US tax code and the US psyche.


[Voting in Southwest Minneapolis, 2008 election.]
Urbanism and the Need for Rental Rights

You might be thinking: Why does this matter? Isn't it good to own your own house? Isn't that the American dream?

The problem with a democratic system biased in favor of home ownership is that it diminishes the potential of urban living. Cities are built around flexibility and density. Healthy cities require easy mobility. People need to be able to move quickly, to keep up with rapidly changing economic and social circumstances. Cities allow for many different kinds of lifestyles and housing choices. Cities are built around a core of rental housing, and the flexibility and choice that it provides.

This is more true today than ever before. Changing demographics and a changing economic environment means  more people are demanding flexible rental housing. Demographically, the nuclear family (and their single family house) are becoming increasingly rare. Instead, our population is composed of single-person households, "empty nesters", and the elderly who don't need large houses. Similarly, more and more jobs are short-term, temporary, or contract situations. People (especially the young) are changing jobs more and more frequently (if they can get them at all). Finally, rising energy prices are incentivizing people to live in smaller homes, nearer to transit. 

All of these factors mean that we need to do more -- not less -- to accommodate new more flexible urban lifestyles. We need to figure out ways to engage citizens that bypass the traditional homeowner-based model (e.g. neighborhood groups).

The voter ID amendment  poses problems for those with urban lifestyles, particularly those in rental housing. Young people move around frequently because of shifting jobs and social relationships. Huge percentages of young people today do NOT have their current address on their driver's license (myself included). Many people might not have up-to-date energy bills.

The voter ID amendment creates a situation where, if you own a home, you can vote easily. But if you are a renter, voting is going to require a bunch of additional steps (e.g. going to the DMV to update your license). When faced with these additional hurdles, how many people simply won't bother? Do we want to live in a society where voting is easy for those who own homes, and difficult for those who don't?


[Lines to vote in Pershing Park, 2008.]
Ownership Society

I don't know how it happened, but some time back, I found myself reading a newspaper comment thread. I know; it was dumb. It was a column written about the St Paul Student Housing ordinance, and I was really curious about what the usual newspaper trolls might say about the issue.

One of the comments (which I can't find right now) expressed the following sentiment:
Why should we allow students to participate in neighborhood group meetings? They don't own homes. Students come and go. They don't have a stake in the matter.  They aren't in their neighborhood for the long term.
I'm not quoting it exactly right, but that kind of sentiment is quite common in discussions about land use and urban policy. Neighborhoods and neighborhood groups are dominated by home owners. They feel that people that own homes should be the people who have a voice; renters are "transient," and don't "have a stake" in their neighborhoods. Homeowners, on the other hand, go to meetings, fill out surveys, and write their local politicians. Local democracy revolves around people with homes. I hear this a lot. It's a commonly held belief.

The problem is that this bias makes it even harder to create vibrant, flexible, and just cities. We need to make it easier for people in cities -- people who move around frequently -- to participate in our democracy. Throwing up hurdles based on residence will be yet another way we rig our political system in favor of suburbia.

It's already very difficult for people with rental housing to engage in politics. A vote for the ID amendment is a vote against cities, and an attempt to turn back our political clock to 1950s suburbia. We need to be more accommodating - not less - to those people living in cities, renting homes, moving around every year. Minnesota should not be a home ownership society. Our urban future will look very different.




Bonus:

CNN's 5 reasons why Minnesota is tops in voting include:
  1. Same-day voter registration laws
  2. Hearty, Midwestern civic culture
  3. They raise awareness about voting
  4. No voter ID laws
  5. A competitive, multi-party political scene

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