Comfort and affliction

I scan the headlines from several newspapers each day. I check out our local Rapid City Journal, The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune (I’ve got to keep up with the Cubs!). I also look at a handful of international news sites, among them BBC News. It surprises me sometimes how many stories that BBC covers about events in the United States that I don’t find in US newspapers. This morning I was reading the story of 67-year-old Leroy Switlick. Mr. Switlick has voted in every presidential election for more than 40 years. However, he’s having trouble this year. Wisconsin has a new voter ID law that requires a photo ID such as a driver’s license or passport. Mr. Switlick has neither. Legally blind, Mr. Switlick has never driven and has never had a driver’s license. He went to the DMV to obtain a photo ID, carrying a stack of documents including his birth certificate. The first question he was asked was, “Can I see your photo ID?” He never got the DMV employee to even look at his birth certificate.

On his second trip, the official he had been told to ask for simply didn’t show up and he left with no ID.

On his third trip he was accompanied by his lawyer. They were told that the computers were down, though his lawyer was told later in the day that there had been no record of a computer problem on that day.

It is estimated that 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin may not have the required ID to cast their ballots under the state’s new ID law. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says the legislation will make it “easier to vote, but hard to cheat.” He also said the law is justified if only one fraudulent vote is prevented. It seems that the “easier to vote” part of his statement isn’t the case for Mr. Switlick. And I’m having trouble with his math. Deny 300,000 people the right to vote on the fear of 1 fraudulent vote?

Voter fraud is not a major problem in the United States. Loyola Law School found only 31 cases of credible voter impersonation between 2000 and 2014, out of a billion ballots cast. Adam Gitlin of the Brennan Center stated that “estimates suggest that 11% of eligible voters in the United States lack the ID required by states with voter ID laws and that those people are disproportionately black, Latino, low income, students and elderly voters.

The voter ID law win North Carolina was struck down by the Supreme Court, but there are still eight states with similar laws. I live in one of those states.

My interpretation of democracy may be naive, but I was taught that in order for it to work, everyone needs to participate. Voting isn’t just a right, it is a responsibility. I try to educate myself and vote in every election. Then again, I have a driver’s license and a passport in addition to a government-issued photo ID from the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. I won’t be protesting, simply complying, when asked for my ID when I vote in November.

There is no denying that it is easier for me than it is for Mr. Switlick, who by now has gotten enough publicity that I’m pretty sure the State of Wisconsin will come through with an ID so he can vote. I’m not worried about me or Mr. Switlick. There are hundreds of thousands of others that worry me.

I was thinking of what seems to me to be an inherent unfairness of the voter ID laws while I was reading a review of C. Nichole Mason’s new memoir: “Born Bright.” It is the story of a young woman who somehow made it through the violence and structural poverty and systematic racism in Southern California in the ’80’s and ’90’s to end up in college. Like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” it is a tale of innovation and triumph in a world where the odds seem stacked against the hero of the story. Mason, however, doesn’t claim exceptional talent or abilities. She is quick to point out how incredibly lucky she is to have survived the challenges of her past. The fact that she ended up at Howard University is something of a miracle, actually.

We read about the exceptions. The victims fall underneath our radar. The BBC story is about someone who has had problems with the voter ID law, but who will get to vote. No one is writing stories about the people who will simply be turned away from the polls because they have been denied full participation in American democracy. The children who never get through high school don’t write memoirs for us to read.

In seminary a common piece of advice was that a preacher’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The actual quote doesn’t come from the bible. It comes from humorist Finley Peter Dunne, whose original statement was made in reference to newspapers. Regardless of the source of the quote, it seems to be good advice for those of us who seek to make active our love for others.

On that score, I confess that I am among the comfortable. I haven’t suffered the terrible challenges that were overcome by C. Nichole Mason. I haven’t had to overcome the unfairness encountered by Leroy Switlick. But there are those in my community who have been similarly afflicted.

While I don’t know the entire history of US elections, it does seem that this particular presidential election cycle has been extraordinarily divisive. Far too many angry words have been said and far too much hateful rhetoric has been cast. While it is not my role to tell others how to vote, it does seem appropriate that I should encourage them to participate. Then, on November 9, after the election is over, regardless of the winners and losers, it will be the job of each of us to try to bring healing and unity to our divided country. Reaching out to those with whom we disagree must become a way of life.

It is time to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!