Why Photo ID Laws Are Not the Answer

Strict photo ID laws result in disenfranchisement, unnecessary costs, and unequal treatment of voters and simply are not a proportionate response to any legitimate concerns about potential voter fraud.
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We hear it all the time: How can you be against making voters show a photo ID when they vote? You need an ID to do almost anything in today's society -- buying beer, driving a car, getting on an airplane, going to an R-rated movie -- so why shouldn't you have to show a government-issued photo ID to vote?

It sure sounds like common sense, and it is a sentiment, coupled with the specter of voter fraud, that has driven more than 30 state legislatures this year to consider requiring limited forms of government-issued photo ID at the polls, prompting the Washington Post and New York Times to question why the country is fighting what is essentially a war on voting.

The rub: Strict photo ID laws result in disenfranchisement, unnecessary costs, and unequal treatment of voters and simply are not a proportionate response to any legitimate concerns about potential voter fraud. What may seem like common sense is actually a real barrier for those who want to participate, and a significant expense to all of us.

Our voting system badly needs to improve to meet 21st century standards. Yet here we are fighting to stop politicians from turning back the clock and making it harder for people to vote. It is distracting and disappointing to see proposed laws that use tomorrow's money to solve yesterday's alleged problems when real problems are staring us in the face.

Let's put this issue to rest and move on to envisioning a real 21st century system.

The Current System

In states that allow people to register to vote by mail, first-time voters who show up at the polls must provide some form of government-issued photo ID or non-photo documentation with their name and current address. For nearly all other voters, identification requirements vary in the 50 states.

In 23 of them, no formal documentation is required at the polls. Although, in these states voters are often required to recite their addresses or sign a poll book affirming their identities, under penalty of perjury. A perjury conviction could result in five years in prison and a $10,000 fine under federal law, in addition to any state penalties.

Only Indiana and Georgia require voters to show a government-issued photo ID like a driver's license, passport, or military ID at the polls. Texas and Kansas are soon to join them. South Carolina and Oklahoma require either a government-issued ID or a voter registration card. Florida requires a photo ID, but it doesn't have to be government-issued, which means a buyer's club ID, student ID, neighborhood association ID would be fine.

Of the 22 other states that require some form of documentation at the polls, 12 states allow voters to present a wide range of documents to prove their identity and current address, such as utility bills, voter registration cards, student IDs, paychecks, tax bills, car registrations, and other government documents. The remaining 10 states allow a voter who doesn't have the required ID to sign an affidavit or statement, under the penalty of perjury, that they are who they say they are.

This list will change as states enact new laws. You can see where things are in play here.

The Prevailing Justification: Why Are We Hung Up On Voter Fraud?

Voter fraud is the justification most often cited by those who want to enact strict photo ID laws. Unfortunately, the term "voter fraud" frequently gets conflated into an all-encompassing bogeyman that sweeps in all kinds of potential election misconduct, including allegations of felons voting before their rights have been restored, voters being registered in more than one place, dead people on the rolls, double voting, vote-buying or even poll workers and elections officials miscounting or misinforming voters. None of these potential abuses would be addressed by a photo ID law.

The type of voter fraud that photo ID bills can potentially claim to counter is voter identification fraud, which is basically pretending to be someone else for the purpose of casting that voter's ballot. Numerous studies and extensive criminal investigations have shown that voter impersonation fraud is extremely rare.

A five-year crackdown by President George W. Bush's Department of Justice yielded only 86 voter fraud convictions (120 million people voted in 2004) and most of those convictions were not for voter fraud that could have been stopped by a voter ID law. Problems mostly occurred due to confusion about eligibility to vote, especially among felons and immigrants, and clerical errors. Other exhaustive studies just have not found extensive problems with voter impersonation. As it turns out, the Brennan Center for Justice concluded, voter impersonation is more rare than death by lightning.

Consider what someone who wants to impersonate a registered voter at the polls would have to go through for one vote (which I have adapted from a very smart brief submitted in the Supreme Court case about Indiana's photo ID law):

  • Travel to the proper polling place for a particular voter whose name and address is memorized
  • Accurately forge the voter's signature
  • Potentially have to provide other information about the voter (utility bill, last four digits of her Social Security number)
  • Make sure that voter has not already voted absentee or requested an absentee ballot
  • Know that the voter has not moved and re-registered at her new location or hasn't been removed from the rolls for another reason
  • Know that the voter has not already voted that day and does not plan to vote before the polls close
  • Wait in line to cast a ballot in that voter's name
  • Risk detection from a poll worker who may know the registered voter
  • Face fines and jail time

It seems pretty far-fetched, yet that specter is what is apparently driving the push for photo ID laws.

No one wants to see the system abused. The problem with combating "voter fraud" with photo ID requirements is that these laws can exclude or deter people who are otherwise legally able to vote. For both proponents and opponents of photo ID bills, it should be just as unsettling to think that someone could abuse the system as it is to think that someone could be excluded from it. So even if you think voter impersonation fraud is a huge problem, let's talk about whether strict photo ID bills are an effective and just response. Hint: They are not.

The Case Against Photo ID Laws

As states try to restrict the forms of acceptable identification at the polls to a very narrow list of government-issued IDs, consider these reasons why these policies will not propel our country's voting system towards the reform we need:

1. Not everyone has photo ID states would require

It may sound crazy, but not everyone in America has a photo ID. Hard to believe, but 11 percent of the eligible population (about 21 million people) do not have the type of identification that would be required by photo ID laws. When you look at voters under the age of 30, the facts are even worse: 1-in-5 doesn't have a driver's license, the most commonly accepted form of photo ID.

Just look at a few states where strict photo ID bills are being pushed.

In North Carolina, more than 500,000 currently registered voters do not have a driver's license. In Wisconsin, 23 percent of all citizens over the age of 65 and 78 percent of African-American men and 66 percent of African American women ages 18 to 24 don't have state-issued ID. In Ohio, over 40,000 out-of-state students at public colleges and universities who would not be able to vote in Ohio unless they get a state-issued ID card.

For young people who are more likely to be in school and are generally more mobile, these requirements are a real burden. The simple truth is that as the list of acceptable IDs gets shorter, more people are excluded from the democratic process. The longer the list, the more likely it is that someone will have documents that allow them to vote. If we accept the reality that not everyone has a driver's license or state-issued ID for whatever reason -- but may have a student ID or a tribal ID or a utility bill or a Social Security number or other types unique identifiers -- then how can proponents justify the exclusion of otherwise lawful voters on that basis?

2. It costs a lot of money to implement a strict photo ID system

OK, so not everyone has an ID. It is completely logical to ask: why don't they just get one? Fair enough, but you are going to foot the bill.

Under the Constitution, according to the Supreme Court's ruling in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, a state that requires a voter to show an ID at the polls must provide one at no cost to that voter. Charging a voter for it constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax, which was outlawed by the 24th Amendment. Accordingly, in order to implement a new photo ID program, taxpayers are going to have to pay millions of dollars a year to make sure every voter who wants one has state-issued identification. That's not cheap.

It is estimated that a new ID requirement in Missouri will cost over $20 million over the next three years; in North Carolina, independent estimates suggest $14 million or more; in Minnesota, the bill would be around $19 million. At a time when states are struggling to make ends meet and are making deep and real cuts, is it really worth millions of taxpayer dollars to provide IDs to everyone and fund the necessary public education and poll worker training (both of which are also required by the courts) that comes with it? It just doesn't sound like the best use of precious resources.

It is also worth noting that there isn't anything "free" about a free ID. (Check out this video of one student in North Carolina trying to get a state ID.) In addition to the cost to either voters or taxpayers (an ID cost $28 in Wisconsin, for example), voters have to get the underlying documents (birth certificates or other official documents) that allow them to get a driver's license or state ID. They have to take off work or school, get to the DMV (because they surely aren't driving themselves), and have everything you need to get an otherwise unnecessary ID. As a result, we are making voting as easy as a trip to the DMV -- hardly an appealing solution for anyone.

3. There are effective ways to make sure people are who they say they are

Photo identification isn't the only way you can prove your identify. States use a number of different unique identifiers in addition to photo IDs to ensure they are providing ballots to the right registered voter, including signature verification, utility bills, paychecks, student IDs, bank statements, requiring voters to provide the last four digits of their Social Security number, asking for their date of birth, and more.

Last month, when he came out against Ohio's proposed photo ID law, the Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted said that he believes the current identification requirements are sufficient to combat fraud. According to the Columbus Dispatch:

Husted said he would not change Ohio's current election-day process in which voters can prove their identities at the polls through a photo ID (such as a driver's license), a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government document with a current name and address.

"I believe that if you have a government-issued check, a utility bill in your name with your address on it, that no one made that up," Husted said to reporters following his speech during League of Women Voters of Ohio annual Statehouse Day. "They didn't call AEP and establish utilities in their name to commit voter fraud."

The county auditors in Iowa -- a collection of 60 Republicans, 38 Democrats and two independents who actually run the elections in the state -- came out against that state's photo ID proposal because it was costly and unnecessary to prevent voter fraud. A recent article highlighted Jasper County and 49 other counties that have systems to ensure integrity and guarantee voters are who they say they are without resorting to disenfranchising methods like only accepting state-issued photo ID.

Jasper County began using laptop computers equipped with the Precinct Atlas Program to check voters at the polls. Forty-nine other counties in Iowa also use the program. Precinct Atlas contains all of the vital information about voters registered in Jasper County to verify their true identity. Poll workers are provided with the voter's birth date, address, telephone number, the last four digits of their Social Security number, a driver's license number, and whether that person is a convicted felon.

If a voter shows up at the wrong polling place to vote, the program prints out a label with the address of the voter's correct precinct and polling place.

"With this information, it would be extremely difficult for a person to pass themselves off as someone else to vote," [Jasper County Auditor Dennis] Parrott said.

This strikes me as a more modern, forward-looking approach to addressing the need to identify people at the polls and to assist them if they are in the wrong spot.

(Side note to those who hang their hats on the sanctity and security of photo IDs: Did you ever try to get beer before you were 21 or know anyone who has? Fake IDs are not hard to get. Half of the 9/11 hijackers had real, official state-issued identification cards.)

4. Photo ID laws aren't applied equally

The most common retort to our complaint that student voters, especially out-of-state students, will not be able to vote at their school if voter ID laws pass is: "Just get an absentee ballot from your home address!"

First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that students have the right to vote where they go to school. They are constitutionally protected from having to just vote absentee from "home" if they want to vote at school.

Second, telling someone who doesn't have an ID to just get an absentee ballot is an interesting argument from supporters of strict photo ID laws. While there is a lot of chest thumping about potential voter fraud at the polls, absentee voters who don't show up at a polling place aren't required to provide photo identification. Ballots get mailed to absentee voters who return them without stepping foot in a polling place. An out-of-state student voting from her parent's house "back home" or an in-state student who gets his ballot sent to him at his school address would never go to the polls or show an ID.

Third, in addition to unequal treatment of poll voters and absentee voters, states also treat different types of students differently. In some states, like Indiana and Georgia, public school student IDs with expiration dates are acceptable, but not student IDs from private schools. No student IDs would be accepted under the current versions of the Ohio and Wisconsin laws, by the way.

The Debate We Could Be Having

We all should want a modern, secure, just and fully participatory democratic system that we can trust. Strict photo ID laws alone are a dangerous solution in search of a problem. What is real is the antiquated, paper-based voter registration system that keeps people off of the rolls because of clerical and user errors. Too many states have failed to make voter registration more effective and efficient through automatic or online registration, and they continue to lag at making it easier for people to cast a ballot with same day registration and early voting. Plus, our schools have cut civics education, so we have an electorate less familiar with the system and less aware of their rights.

If we truly care about prioritizing participation, reducing barriers and building faith in the system, then we can't waste any more time on photo ID laws.

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