Recently, numerous states have enacted voter identification laws requiring registered voters to present acceptable identification when they arrive at the polling place to cast their ballots. Voter I.D. laws are promoted as necessary to guard against voter impersonation fraud. An obvious problem with this justification is that voter impersonation fraud is not a problem in the United States. In fact, it is far less common than fatal lightning strikes and it has no impact on American elections. Yet, in more than half the U.S., at a time when real problems such as absentee voter fraud — something not addressed by voter I.D. laws — desperately need to be addressed, legislatures instead decided it was imperative they enact voter I.D. legislation. Given the near absolute lack of voter impersonation fraud in this country, some other motivation must exist to explain why so many legislatures have enacted laws to fight against an imaginary problem.
The problem with voter I.D. laws are that they create a roadblock for certain registered voters to vote in the election. Registered voters who currently have no acceptable identification must go to their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, bringing with them numerous forms of identification (bank statements, social security cards, etc.) to be issued I.D. acceptable for voting in elections. Some will be unable to provide acceptable identification and will be disenfranchised. Even for those who do possess the necessary paperwork, this tedious process reduces voter turnout to supposedly address a nonexistent problem.
At a minimum, voter I.D. laws are a pointless and ill-considered policy. It is more likely, however, that these laws serve a more insidious purpose. Voter I.D. laws, passed almost exclusively by Republican legislatures, disproportionately affect urban, minority, senior citizen and young voters less likely to own acceptable identification and more likely to vote Democrat. The results are laws that, on their face, apply equally to all but in practice make it more difficult for a Democrat leaning portion of the electorate to vote. It is hard to believe this wasn’t by design.
Perhaps the most obvious case of the discriminatory purpose of voter I.D. laws is the Tennessee voter I.D. legislation, which permits expired out-of-state hunter’s licenses to serve as acceptable identification, but prohibits current in-state city-issued photo identification from being used for voting. The almost comically obvious purpose of this legislation is to make it difficult for Democrat leaning voters (people more likely to have city issued photo I.D.s such as library cards) to participate in our democracy, while encouraging former out-of-state hunters (which party are they likely to vote for?) to participate in the election.
But we need not cynically conclude that the unstated purpose of these laws is targeted voter suppression. Pennsylvania GOP majority leader Mike Turzai explained for us the real purpose of Voter I.D. laws when he said “Voter I.D., which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win Pennsylvania . . . done.” Did you notice the part where he boasts that voter I.D. is about making Republicans win elections?
This type of targeted voter suppression, under the paper-thin façade of preventing imaginary voter impersonation fraud, has no place in our democracy. The recently passed voter I.D. laws are less egregious than a poll tax or literacy test, but enacted with the same purpose, to disenfranchise those unlikely to vote for the politicians in power. That more than half of the states in the U.S. have enacted such dangerous and stupid laws proves (if we needed proof) that partisans should not control our elections. Voter I.D. is but a particularly obvious and outrageous example of the problems with American election law. We need independent electoral oversight, and we need it badly. Candidate’s need to win and lose elections on the strength of their ideas and policies and not through bad laws making it difficult for their opponents’ supporters to vote. If voter I.D. laws are left unchecked and the conniving power-elite partisans behind these laws are allowed to pull another fast one on the American public, what’s next? Requiring a driver’s license to vote? A car? Property?
One can hope that this terrific example of terrible policy will serve as a wakeup call for the American electorate to begin to pay attention, to see that we are being tricked, misled, and lied to by many of those we elect to represent us. It is an old truism that politicians are liars and crooks, but it is not a necessary truth. This is not the political system that must be, but merely the political system that we ignorantly allow. If our leaders like Mike Turzai consciously believe that suppressing the vote is more effective than promoting policies the public wants, we have little chance for continued progress as a society. For the sake of our democracy, we must begin to pay attention, to stand up for free and fair elections and to protect this most fundamental right from those who would deny the vote to gain power.
Nicholas Kaasik is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School and he assigns and edits submissions for Barely Legal. He may be reached at email@example.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.