National Review and Voter ID

National Review used to be a serious magazine of conservative thought. But now it has degenerated into partisan cheerleading. Consider the latest editorial and a follow-up piece by the editor, making a truly disingenuous case for the recent wave of state voter ID laws, particularly the one that was just enacted in North Carolina where I live and vote.

National Review has always had a strong libertarian streak, so one would expect the magazine to appreciate that while in police states people are routinely stopped and asked to show "papers," in an open society the government should not ask citizens to show ID without a compelling reason, especially when those citizens are exercising their fundamental rights. In some cases, of course, there is indeed a very compelling reason -- e.g. requiring everyone entering the country to show a passport is vital for the enforcement of immigration rules and important for national security. But is there any compelling reason for voter ID?

The editorial devotes a whole paragraph to the argument that voter fraud "happens all the time". However, all the examples listed share a very curious quality: none of those cases could have conceivably been prevented by voter ID requirement. Confirming the voter's identity can prevent only one kind of fraud -- by voter impersonation. Why did National Review not mention any of those cases then? Because they are extremely rare. In terms of frequency of occurrence voter impersonation fraud ranks somewhere between lethal lightning strikes and lethal shark attacks (there were two reported cases in North Carloina in the past 10 years). So voter ID laws at best are going to prevent a miniscule number of fraudulent votes and may actually increase the incidence of voter fraud because more voters will probably choose to vote by absentee ballot, a method much more susceptible to voter fraud than voting in person.

The absence of any compelling reason should already be sufficient reason not to have voter ID laws, but there are still more reasons, and National Review makes a very clumsy attempt to dismiss them. The editors acknowledge that 3% of voters in North Carolina do not have an approved state photo ID. A requirement to obtain it before voting imposes a burden on them. The editors argue that there is no burden at all since voter ID laws provide for free state IDs for those who do not have them. But they are only "free" in a sense that the state will not charge for issuing them. However voters still have to get to the DMV office and that's a challenge for those without a car, especially in rural areas (all those voters without state ID presumably are without a car since if they had one they would also have a driver license). It may be an even greater challenge for those who work (especially for an hourly wage rather than salary), since DMV offices are usually open only during regular business hours. The costs of transportation and time off work can easily amount to a hefty poll tax on low income voters. Yet National Review does not even acknowledge the problem, let alone address it.

So the voter ID laws make exercise of important rights contingent upon showing a state ID without any serious rationale and, furthermore, impose unnecessary burden on a significant number of voters. To the editors of National Review this makes "good sense".