"The Enlightenment gave us street addresses and ushered in democracy. The Age of Un-Enlightenment is using addresses to usher it out.
This month, the Supreme Court released a 6-to-2 decision upholding a law requiring North Dakotans who want to vote to provide a street address. It’s a good thing for the Republicans that so many Native Americans don’t have them.
People often think of their street names and house numbers as banal. But they’re an essential part of proving your identity. Want to register for school? Open a bank account? Build credit and start a business? Show proof of address.
Native Americans, the largest minority group in North Dakota, have some of the highest rates of poverty in the country. They also disproportionately lack street addresses. Many live in rural locations, where streets have never been systematically numbered and named, and where the Postal Service still does not deliver. They rely largely on P.O. boxes — and a P.O. box doesn’t count as a “residential street address” under the North Dakota law.
Even those who do have an address can be disenfranchised by this law. Many Native Americans rent their homes, which means that the address they have on an ID is more likely to be out of date than it is for those who own their homes. They can provide supplementary documents, like utility bills, to prove residency, except that as Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, an estimated 18,000 North Dakotans don’t have those, either.
One of the plaintiffs in the case, Lucille Vivier, said the police department, the paramedics and Federal Express each had a different address for her on file. And none of those addresses appeared on her tribal ID, which Ms. Vivier presented when she tried to vote in 2014. She was turned away by the poll worker, a woman she had known since she was 5 years old. Another voter was turned away by her own niece.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that addresses were being used as a tool for disenfranchisement. Governments have, intentionally or not, long excluded their most marginalized citizens from this crucial aspect of legal identity. There are still at least tens of millions of city dwellers around the world who don’t have an address.
Street names and house numbers weren’t inevitable; they were invented. Almost 250 years ago, for example, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria began to number the homes across her vast realm to enable mass conscription of men to fight her wars. As Anton Tantner of the University of Vienna has chronicled, more than a thousand officers fanned out across her empire, painting on each house a number in black paint made from oil and boiled bones, while recording who lived there on preprinted forms.
Violent protests broke out occasionally across Europe as subjects realized house numbers were yet another way governments could exercise control over their money, time and bodies. A Swiss visitor to Austria was “horrified to see numbers on the houses which appear to us a symbol of the hand of the rule determinedly taking possession of the private individual.”
But with the burdens of street addresses came privileges. House numbering was “one of the most important innovations of the era of Enlightenment,” Mr. Tantner said. Assigning each house a number simultaneously advanced two bedrock principles of Enlightenment thought: rationality and equality. Cities were now easy to navigate, and people easy to find. A peasant’s home was numbered in the same way as an aristocrat’s. And residents soon noticed the advantages in mail delivery and advertising rewards for lost pets, like the “Bolognese puppy, a male white all over and having blue eyes but with one lighter blue than the other and a small muzzle and a black nose” whose lonely owner was waiting for him at No. 222 Bognergasse in the winter of 1771.
They also noticed that having an address meant that someone might actually want to find you; lacking an address became a badge of inferiority. Maria Theresa only cursorily considered Jews and women in her house numbering campaign; animals, so much more useful in war, received more attention.
In parts of the United States, it was often the publishers of city directories who first numbered houses, and they tended to exclude women, children and servants from their books. Reuben Rose-Redwood of the University of Victoria in Canada recounts how one directory publisher in 19th century New York City boasted that “the names of laborers, colored people, persons in low obscurity who rent tenements by the week or month, may be excluded without impairing the utility of the work.” Some people were simply not worth counting.
Today this kind of blatant address discrimination is rare, but the unaddressed around the world often remain the most marginalized. Last year, I went to Kolkata, India, where a nonprofit is assigning addresses to slum residents to allow them access to bank accounts and ID cards. In apartheid South Africa, areas designated for black people were often not assigned addresses.
A few years ago, I wrote about West Virginia’s attempt to name and number streets in some of its poorest, most rural hollows, where residents risked death while ambulances struggled to find them. One ambulance driver told me he would ask the stricken callers how loud the sirens were as a way of finding them: “Getting hotter? Getting closer?”
Now the Supreme Court seems to have decided that discriminating against people for a lack of address is legally permissible. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in its opinion upholding the North Dakota law, didn’t even try to deny that Native Americans would be disenfranchised. The judges wrote that even if “some communities” lack residential street addresses, that alone was not enough for a statewide injunction against the law.
“Some communities.” What they mean is “Native Americans,” who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. The law now threatens Heidi Heitkamp, the state’s embattled Democratic senator, simply by reducing the number of citizens eligible to vote. Tens of thousands of North Dakotans could be disenfranchised. Ms. Heitkamp won her last election by fewer than 3,000 votes. “This is a blatant form of voter disenfranchisement,” Mr. Rose-Redwood told me, “that uses geography as a weapon.”
The Enlightenment gave us street addresses, and at the same time it toppled monarchies and ushered in democracy. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the Age of Un-Enlightenment is using addresses as a tool to undo these same democratic ideals, one brown voter at a time.
Deirdre Mask, a writer in London, is working on a book about street addresses."