As of last week, New Yorkers are now required to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated before they can enjoy indoor activities like dining at a restaurant, working out at the gym, or visiting a concert venue. San Francisco has launched its own vaccine passport program, as has bachelor party–magnet New Orleans. These entirely reasonable precautions have triggered howls of outrage from populist conservatives and hardened anti-vaxxers who see them as a grave infringement on their personal liberty.
In their furor, this crew has fixated on one especially trolly talking point. Democrats, they argue, are hypocrites for supporting vaccine passports while simultaneously opposing voter ID laws on the grounds that they are racist. Conservatives note that in New York City, just 28 percent of young Black adults are vaccinated, versus 52 percent of whites, meaning Black Americans are currently much more likely to be kept out of restaurants, bars, and clubs under the city’s new rules.
As Fox News host Sean Hannity told his viewers earlier this month: “Anyone that wants to dine indoors, or go to the gym, or do pretty much anything inside, you will need to present documents proving that you have been vaccinated. Remember for months now Democrats insisted that all forms of voter ID, yeah they’re racist. They called voter verification, voter ID laws ‘Jim Crow of the 21st century’ and ‘Jim Crow 2.0.’ ” You can find versions of this sentiment all over Twitter, and perhaps just as importantly, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, where North Dakota Republican Kevin Cramer introduced a bill requiring states that adopt vaccine passport systems to also impose voter ID laws.
Even by the standards of the right-wing noise machine, this is an incredibly inane attempt at a gotcha. While they may have a disparate impact on Black young adults in the short term, vaccine passports are clearly nothing like voter ID laws. The comparison is absurd.
For starters, only one of these policies is intended to fix a real problem. Vaccine passports are meant to help stop the spread of COVID-19—an actual virus that frequently kills people and has upended the world as we once knew it. Voter ID laws are ostensibly meant to prevent in-person voter fraud—a phenomenon so rare as to be functionally nonexistent. If ballot stuffing and double voting truly were rampant, it might actually be worth having a discussion about requiring IDs at the polls and the trade-offs it entails. As it is, it’s not shocking that Democrats would support steps to combat a genuine crisis but not an imaginary one.
That’s the polite way of framing the issue. The blunter way to put it is that while vaccine passports are designed to help stop a currently worsening plague, voter ID rules are mostly designed to stop Democrats from voting—specifically young people and lower-income minorities, who for various reasons often have difficulty obtaining a driver’s license. Empirically speaking, it’s not clear that the laws actually suppress turnout much, if at all. But the restrictive intent is clear.
Most conservatives would object to this characterization, at least in public. But while smart Republicans usually claim that ID requirements are simply meant to shore up public confidence in our elections even if actual instances of fraud are rare, they sometimes drop the fig leaf and admit that the laws are really just about winning elections. As one longtime Republican consultant famously said of North Carolina’s controversial voter ID statute, “Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?”
Vaccine passports, meanwhile, are not intended to prevent people from going out to eat or do any of the apocalyptic things that many of Hannity’s viewers and Cramer’s voters might think. They’re a nudge intended to make people get vaccinated, which at this point is obviously a legitimate policy goal. Finding a legal workaround to disenfranchise many Black and Hispanic voters, in contrast, is not. This is not rocket science.
Hard-right Republicans, who have generally adopted an antagonistic attitude toward vaccination and mask mandates that can only be described as pro-COVID, are not the only ones who have argued that requiring vaccine passports would be unfair to the Black community. In one extreme case, Boston’s interim mayor, who is Black, actually compared vaccine requirements to the papers free Blacks were required to show in order to prove they weren’t slaves during the antebellum era. I wouldn’t be surprised if concerns about racial equity, or just plain sensitivities to vaccine hesitancy in the Black community, have stopped other big city mayors from implementing them, even if they’ve skipped the fiery rhetoric.
But fundamentally, we’ve reached a point where we desperately need to get every American possible vaccinated if we want a safe return to normal life. It’s especially imperative that we get inoculation rates up in the Black community, which is lagging behind after being hit harder than any other group by the pandemic. Failing to do so would be its own tremendous racial injustice. Vaccine passports might be a slightly coercive way to do it. But sometimes public health interventions need to be a little coercive (see: vaccine requirements for kids in school). In the end, there’s simply no comparison between a policy meant to keep Black Americans from getting sick and one that’s meant to keep them from voting. There’s no reason more cities shouldn’t follow New York’s, San Francisco’s, and New Orleans’ lead.