“Voter identification” has become a major Republican Party initiative. Complaining loudly that there must be blatant voter fraud out there — though there is little evidence of it — Republican legislators have busily been enacting stricter voter ID measures in many states. These new requirements generally require that a voter present a photo identification card in order to vote.
It sounds pretty good, like motherhood and apple pie. Republican Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, when signing such bill into law recently, said that it would provide “integrity, accountability, and transparency.” She added a common-sense thought:
“If you can show a picture [ID] to buy Sudafed, if you can show a picture [ID] to get on an airplane, you should be able to show a picture [ID] to vote.”
This simple proposition is proving very persuasive. Rhode Island’s State Senate recently approved such a law, while Wisconsin and Texas are expected to enact similar statutes. In five states (Hawaii, Michigan, Idaho, South Dakota, and Louisiana), voters must present a photo ID or sign an affidavit attesting to to their identity.
Kansas is taking the effort one step further. For the 2012 election, Kansans will need to present photo ID; thereafter, they will also have to present proof of citizenship in order to vote (either a birth certificate or passport).
Although the superficial rationale behind these statutes has some appeal, the simple fact is that they are designed to block poor and elderly people from voting. Not everyone has a photo ID. South Carolina’s election commission estimates that 180,000 voters in that state do not have such a document. The state has pledged to issue a free photo voter-registration card to those voters, but the bureaucratic hassle will doubtless deter many voters and suppress votes by poor and elderly people, who are the ones who do not have driver’s licenses.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s tough voter-ID law in 2008, in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. Somewhat ironically, the Indiana Court of Appeals then struck down that statute the following year as violating the guarantee of equal treatment under the law in the Indiana Constitution. The state court decision, however, was then vacated on procedural grounds and the Indiana law remains in effect.
The political trade-off with these statutes is straightforward. Voter fraud is a trivial problem in this country. In a four-year crusade to stamp out voter fraud between 2002 and 2005, according to the Wall Street Journal, George W. Bush’s Justice Department found a basis for prosecuting 95 individuals for voter fraud, and won 55 convictions. The cases involved “double voting, voting by noncitizens, registration fraud, vote buying and ballot forgery by an election official.”
Those prosecutions, which seem like a drop in the proverbial bucket in a nation of 350 million, all were made without voter ID laws being in effect. Yet voter ID laws will predictably deter tens of thousands of citizens from voting. They also will multiply the confusion and delays on election days around the nation.
Sad to say, the political momentum is all in favor of these bad laws. We are security-obsessed these days, willingly relinquishing our rights. We have grown numb to ever-increasing demands for our identification, to online demands for our social security numbers, birth dates, and mothers’ maiden names. And it is impossible to speak out in favor of the targets of voter ID laws (double voting, vote buying, and ballot forgery). All undermine democracy.
But we have many other tools for dealing with those problems. We should not attack them with voter ID laws that will exclude the powerless from voting. That’s a terrible trade-off.