Republican Vote Suppression Hitches Ride on Detroit's Woes

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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According to a study released this month by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, only 54 percent of Americans have a driver's license before their 18th birthday. One survey found that 46 percent of people in the U.S. ages 18 to 24 would choose access to the Internet over access to their own car.

Auto companies are in a panic over teens' declining interest in their product. The AAA report cites a precipitous "downward trend" in licensing rates among high school seniors, with 85 percent reporting that they had a license in 1996, but only 73 percent reporting that in 2010.

The decline increasingly has implications for voting behavior, as well. At least 22 states have introduced Voter ID laws, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. North Carolina just enacted a whirlwind of vote-suppression tactics that, as Rick Hasen writes here, has already made a mockery of the Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder ruling, which claimed it could curtail the Voting Rights Act without significant impact.

A valid driver's ID, the standard photo identification issued by states, is accepted for purposes of voting. But as fewer young people obtain driver's licenses, the routine connection between adulthood and a photo ID is increasingly broken. Other forms of government ID -- military identification, for example -- are either limited to a small subset of youth or require specific efforts, and sometimes money, to obtain.

The partisan implications are clear: In 2012, President Barack Obama captured 60 percent of votes cast by Americans ages 18 to 29. And when it comes to driver's licenses, there is a wide disparity between poor and minority teens, who are even more likely to vote Democratic, and wealthy and white teens.

The AAA reported:

Low-income and minority teens are the least likely to obtain a driver's license before age 18. Only 25 percent of teens living in households with incomes less than $20,000 obtained their license before they turned 18, while 79 percent of teens were licensed by their eighteenth birthday in households with incomes of $100,000 or more. The findings for licensure by age 18 differed significantly by race and ethnicity, with 67 percent for non-Hispanic white teens, 37 percent for non-Hispanic black teens, and 29 percent for Hispanic teens.

Few could foresee that the love affair between American youth and their automobiles would ever end. Now, thanks to Republican roadblocks at the ballot box, we'll find out how much young people are in love with voting.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net