In order to secure Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) vote to begin debate on the For The People Act — a sweeping voting rights, campaign finance, redistricting and ethics reform bill — Democratic Party leadership had to accommodate his views.
The For The People Act’s voting rights provisions, largely written by the late Democratic congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, set a national floor for state voting rules that would make it easier to vote. But in his compromise proposal, Manchin suggested that a national voter identification law be added to the bill.
Democrats need Manchin’s buy-in for some version of the For The People Act to become law. Not only must he support it, he must also support changing the Senate’s filibuster rules — which he currently opposes. Numerous Democratic political figures including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a chief sponsor of the bill, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), and 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have signaled some level of support for Manchin’s national voter identification compromise.
The question now is whether it’s possible to craft such a provision that fits with the broader purpose of the bill: to remove barriers to voting. Civil and voting rights groups remain deeply skeptical. Voting rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers not only say voter ID laws make it harder to vote, but they are also a tool of voter suppression targeting specific voter groups including Black, Latino, Native American, student and disabled voters.
Kat Calvin, co-founder of Spread the Vote, a nonprofit that helps voters obtain the necessary voter identification in their state, called Manchin’s proposed compromise an “atrocity.”
“The creation of a national voter ID is just so problematic from the beginning,” Jesselyn McCurdy, interim executive vice president of government affairs for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said. “If you create a national voter ID requirement, you’re forcing states to come up with more restrictive laws than they have on the books.”
Further deepening the dilemma, Manchin’s national voter ID proposal contains little to no information on what exactly it is. His compromise list simply states: “Require voter ID with allowable alternatives (utility bill, etc.) to prove identity to vote.”
“It is not fully clear what he is seeking as a voter ID requirement,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
What Makes Voter ID Restrictive
What will ultimately matter to voting rights groups and all 49 other Senate Democrats is whether a national ID requirement is restrictive or not.
All states currently require a baseline minimum of identification for some first-time voters. The 2002 Help American Vote Act required voters nationwide who did not register to vote in person to provide some form of identification the first time they show up to vote. This form of identification can simply be a voter saying their name and address to a poll worker and signing their name. While this was introduced as a compromise to obtain Republican votes for HAVA, the minimum identification requirement is today what voting rights advocates would consider a non-restrictive form of identification.
In total, 36 states go beyond the HAVA minimum to require some kind of voter identification at the polls.
Beginning in 2005, states run by Republicans began to adopt more restrictive forms of identification; these efforts soon accelerated. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that gutted the Voting Rights Act, the number of states adopting restrictive ID laws, particularly restrictive photo ID laws, increased dramatically.
A restrictive identification law is one that requires photo identification, places strict limitations on the types of identification accepted at the polls and imposes limits on how a voter can still vote without the required photo identification. The most restrictive laws are those that do not provide any means for voters who lack the required identification to otherwise identify themselves and cast a ballot.
Republicans pushing restrictive voter ID laws claim to do so to counter election fraud. There is, however, no evidence of widespread voter fraud in contemporary U.S. elections.
Studies show that voter ID laws do nothing to combat fraud. Perhaps this is because there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud to begin with. But studies also show that voter ID laws don’t suppress, or only minimally suppress, voter turnout, as opponents of these measures claim.
Advocates who help voters obtain the necessary ID, however, argue that even if voter ID laws have a minimal effect on voter turnout, they still create unnecessary hurdles for specific categories of voters including Black, Latino, Native American, student, disabled and elderly voters.
“Any voter ID law creates a hurdle for voters and often for election officials, so by definition, a new national voter ID law will make it harder for some voters to vote,” said Liz Avore, vice president for law and policy at the Voting Rights Lab.
“The problem here is that the reason that most Americans think voter ID laws are fine is we think everyone has an ID,” Calvin said.
But many voters not only lack the kind of identification required to vote, but also have difficulty obtaining alternative forms of identification necessary to obtain that identification.
Voters who are homeless, recently aged out of the foster care system or are recently released from prison may lack a utility bill or a fixed address. Some elderly voters may lack a birth certificate, or have difficulty obtaining one. Many disabled voters have difficulty going to the required in-person venue to get their ID. Fewer young voters obtain a driver’s license by the time they turn 18. Others simply cannot afford to pay the fees required to obtain the necessary identification.
A Possible Path Forward
There is an outcome where a national voter ID law in the For the People Act actually makes it easier to vote in some places. It could allow voters to use many different things for identification from all possible forms of ID to a utility bill. From the little information that Manchin provided, this seems to be what he’s thinking about.
Advocates may not love that option, since it would impose a new burden on states that only follow the HAVA minimum requirement. Moreover, the For the People Act already requires states with restrictive laws to allow voters to sign an affidavit under felony penalty of perjury that they are who they say they are and to vote with a provisional ballot.
For an identification requirement to truly not make it harder to vote, voters would also need to be allowed to identify themselves in some way if they did not have any form identification. Taking it further, a national voter ID law could, theoretically, mandate that states provide free voter identification and provide the funds for them to do so — or simply create a free national voter ID card and require states to accept it.
The kind of restrictive laws that could be overridden by a national voter ID law would include those passed by Republicans that appear aimed to limit voter access for particular groups that disproportionately vote for Democrats.
For example, Montana recently changed its list of acceptable forms of voter identification to exclude student IDs. In Georgia, state school attendees can use their student ID to vote, but those who go to private universities, including large historically Black colleges and universities like Morehouse College and Spelman College, cannot. University faculty and staff in Tennessee can use their ID, but students cannot. A voter ID law in North Dakota required voters to provide identification listing a street address, even though Native Americans living on reservations largely do not have street addresses. (The North Dakota tribes reached a settlement with the state to help provide valid IDs for voters.)
The most infamous example of how restrictive voter ID laws can target specific groups is North Carolina’s 2013 “monster” election law. After Republicans won full control of the state government in 2012, legislators sought out data on which forms of ID were disproportionately held by Black voters, like public assistance cards, and passed a strict voter ID law that excluded those IDs from the list of acceptable identification.
“Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?” GOP political consultant Carter Wrenn told The Washington Post in 2016.
A federal appeals court panel ultimately struck down the North Carolina law, which also limited early voting and made it harder to register to vote, in an opinion that said the “new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” to “impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
While Manchin might ultimately be able to live with a strict national voter identification requirement, the other 49 Senate Democrats will not — thus still dooming legislation that needs each and every Democratic Senator to vote for it. Negotiations between Manchin, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the bill’s principals are still ongoing. The actual legislative text of Manchin’s compromise is forthcoming.
The caucus will have to walk a razor-thin line to appease Manchin but not fundamentally restrict the right to vote, with the rights of millions hanging in the balance.