By Irene Lang
Those attending the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee public hearing on LD 121, An Act To Require Photographic Identification to Vote, were witness to an event that is rarely seen in the State House and that raises important questions about the state of discourse in our state and in our country.
As the most recent entry in a long line of contentious efforts to change voting rules in the state, LD 121 would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls unless a municipal clerk could vouch for the person’s identity, and would require the Secretary of State’s office to provide non-driver identification cards to anyone who wants one, free of charge.
The Committee Chairs, anticipating a passionate debate, established ground rules for the hearing that permitted testifiers to discuss the ramifications of the bill, but prohibited them from ascribing motivations to any of the sponsors or supporters. As the hearing progressed, one of the citizens testifying used the word “racist” and mentioned Governor LePage’s name during her testimony, at which point the Chairman cautioned her to stay on topic. As the woman attempted to make her points about racial disparity in the consequences of photo ID, a verbal battle ensued. The Chair muted the speaker’s mic as the woman insisted that she be allowed to continue, while the Chair – still on mic – insisted that she was out of order.
The Chair’s heightened sense of concern to control any passionate or offensive outburst actually led to an over-reaction, turning what could have been a teachable moment into an angst-producing counter-example. The gaveling down of this speaker, and the heated off-mic exchange, were far more “uncivil” than what likely would have emerged in the speaker’s comments. When the woman claimed her constitutional right to discuss racism, the packed overflow room erupted into applause. More than one observer could be heard saying, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” The situation was eventually rescued, and she was eventually allowed to complete her testimony, including a discussion of the racial impact of the bill.
However, in the Chairs’ effort to quell what he feared would be an attack on the character of the bill’s sponsors or supporters, he instead tried to suppress discussion of concerns about some very serious issues. Many of those testifying in opposition to LD 121, including the League, described it as a mechanism of voter suppression, disproportionately affecting minority constituents. Clearly, it would be inappropriate to call the sponsor or supporters of a bill racist, and we would expect the Chair to caution against such accusations. But to say that a bill has the potential for racial suppression – or even to say that it is potentially racist – is not to say that its sponsor had that intent or is, himself, a racist.
At the same time, when similar bills have been litigated in other states, they have been struck down if it could be demonstrated that the supporters had partisan or voter suppression motivations. Motivation and intent are relevant.
Civil discourse must allow for free and full discussion of a bill’s impact, including strong opinions and potentially negative consequences. Regardless of the sensitivity or volatility of the topic, it is essential to allow these concerns to be voiced. Racism, in particular, is a destructive force in our world that must be confronted openly and honestly. Using the term “racist” to describe someone who espouses racist views is no less accurate for being offensive, and any offense is clearly insignificant when measured against the destructive impact of laws that result in racist outcomes. To deny the existence of racism or to turn a blind eye to racist behavior – or legislation – is to become complicit in its perpetuation.
While this type of exchange has been rare in the State House, it may become less so in our currently contentious political climate. Civil discourse takes practice. As our citizenry becomes more divided and views become more passionately held, it will be increasingly difficult to find the fine line between strong views and offensive ones. And, as voters become more vocal in their objections to government actions, they will have to find a way to say what they mean without crossing that line. If the relationship between voters and legislators becomes increasingly strained and defensive, it is incumbent upon the legislature to ensure that the rights of constituents to be heard are upheld and to make room for strong opinions on difficult subjects to be delivered in a respectful way.