How much is too much of a burden when it comes to being an American?
As Americans, we’re required to engage with our government at all levels, in all sorts of ways. Many of those ways create burdens, but are part of the deal when we live under the rule of law and decide who represents us in government. Our relationship with our government is a two-way street.
Consider some of the pillars of civic duty – voting, jury duty, registering for Selective Service, participating in the Census, challenging a property tax assessment. All of these carry burdens on us to leave our homes, bring our stuff, travel to government offices, and spend time filling out documents.
A federal judge in Texas last week ruled that requiring citizens to show a valid photo ID was too much of a burden. The Supreme Court likewise ruled on similar photo ID requirements in Wisconsin, but not on the full merits.
To be fair, there’s more to the Texas voter ID requirements. In Texas, citizens must have one of several valid photo IDs, including a passport, driver’s license, state personal ID, a concealed carry gun license, or an “election ID certificate.” If a citizen doesn’t have one, a citizen has to produce a birth certificate, which can be ordered online or via mail in most cases. When a citizen applies for an ID in Texas, the fee, which ranges from $6 - $16, can be waived. The cost for a birth certificate is generally less than $5.
Advocates opposing photo ID requirements praised the two court decisions as a “perfect storm” in the legal battle to throw out voting requirements in many states (19 states have voter photo ID requirements of some kind). The decision turned on whether it was too hard for 600,000 Texans to get a valid photo ID. Less than 600 have been issued, representing one-tenth of one percent of the Texans who do not have a valid photo ID.
Voter photo ID requirements are routinely described by U.S. Justice Department attorneys and advocacy groups as “disenfranchising” for minorities, the poor, and the elderly. Too much burden. Too hard to accomplish. Too costly.
There’s an old saying that goes, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” There’s been a lot of complaining by non-voters. But maybe there’s more to our story of American citizenship. Maybe there’s “too much burden” all over the place.
Take jury duty, for example. In 2012, only one out of five Dallas County residents who were summoned to jury duty actually showed up. In Harris County, which covers Houston, 30 percent of the people summoned in 2011 did not appear – that’s 148,000 people.
Truth is, jury duty can be a pain. For the average person, it requires leaving your home during work hours, traveling tens of miles to a courthouse, and spending hours waiting to be called for a case. While there are valid excuses for avoiding jury duty, the failure to comply is a criminal offense. In Texas, the fines can be as high as $1,000, and some wayward Texans have even served jail time – and Texas is less harsh than many states.
Under the same logic as the “burdensome” voter photo ID analysis used by the federal court in Texas, jury duty is unconstitutional. Too much trouble. Too hard to travel to the courthouse. Too expensive to miss work. Too much time away from family. Clearly unconstitutional. Sound familiar?
So, when can we expect the multi-state, coordinated legal assault by the combined forces of the U.S. Department of Justice and its allied raft of civil rights advocacy groups to challenge the unconstitutional burden of jury duty? If the courts’ reasoning holds, jury duty is on the chopping block – and all of the other hallmarks of American civic life, too. That’s how absurd the voter ID issue has become.
Cornerstones of representative democracy and living under the rule of law – like voting and jury duty – require participation by citizens. We engage as participants in our freedom. So we must proceed with caution as we judge what constitutes “too much burden.” As Veteran’s Day approaches, we’re reminded of what kind of burden we regularly ask Americans in uniform to carry. Think about that the next time you consider voter photo IDs.