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Do Voter ID Laws Affect Puerto Ricans Disproportionately?

Although Puerto Ricans can’t vote in presidential elections as long as they reside in Puerto Rico, they can vote when they move to the mainland, as millions do.  After all, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

However, Pennsylvania newspaper has reported that the recent spate of voter ID laws may prevent many Puerto Ricans from voting in any election in the states in which they live.

In the past few years, numerous states have passed new laws requiring people to show photo IDs when voting. For the majority of Americans, this is no problem; in fact, if you live in one of those states, you might not even have noticed. Most of us have driver’s licenses and we’re accustomed to showing them when we’re asked, whether because we’re heading into a nightclub or boarding a plane, perhaps even to enter the buildings where we work or to pick up our kids at school.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, however, as many as 10% of people of voting age don’t have a driver’s license. Some groups show very different patterns: the same source claims that less than a quarter of African-American men between 18 and 24 years of age own a driver’s license, and that only two thirds of elderly voters in Georgia do. Add more requirements, as many states do, and the numbers climb. For example, states requiring a driver’s license which shows the voter’s current address can eliminate the great majority of the college students in their states.

Opponents of photo ID laws point out that these laws make it harder for the poor, the elderly, and other specific groups to vote.  But Puerto Ricans face a special problem. In 2010, all Puerto Rican birth certificates issued before  July 1, 2010 were invalidated. Everyone of voting age who was born in Puerto Rico and did not already have a passport or driver’s license on that day must get a new birth certificate to apply for a state ID card to use as a voter ID.

In Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project and other groups have brought suit to challenge the state’s new photo ID law, alleging that it will force many Latinos, and especially Puerto Ricans, to “walk a longer path to the voting booth this election year.”  These groups make  the case that because Pennsylvania requires a birth certificate to obtain a photo ID, Puerto Ricans will face a “double burden” under the new law – first getting a new birth certificate from Puerto Rico and then obtaining a photo ID.  As election day nears, the Advancement Project argues that many Pueto Rican voters will have to overcome two barriers to the ballot.

The Puerto Rican vote in Pennsylvania is significant enough to influence a close election.  According to recent U.S. census data, there are roughly 340,000 Puerto Ricans in the state, which is slightly more than half of the Hispanic population.

Supporters of the Pennsylvania law contend that it addresses voter fraud.  Regardless of who is right, the discussion has touched a nerve.  United States citizens who live in Puerto Rico have always been treated differently from other U.S. citizens when it comes to the right to vote.  In light of the continued disparate treatment of two groups of U.S. citizens, even the threat of another barrier to the voting booth has shown that it has the power to raise concerns and historic sensitivities.


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