February 19, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAYS | To ID or Not to ID: The Ballot Box Question

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Over the past several years, a number of states have added a new requirement that a government issued photo identification be presented at the ballot box in order to vote. These laws protect the integrity of the ballot box by requiring that a voter prove that he or she is the voter whose name appears in the voter roll. In all states that have enacted this requirement, free voter identifications are available to those who are registered to vote.

Despite the availability of cost-free identifications, a number of criticisms have been leveled against voter identification laws. These criticisms usually fall into three categories. The first school of thought deems such laws unnecessary, the second posits that even if there were an identifiable problem, voter identification laws don’t solve it and the third contends that voter identification laws are discriminatory in that they aim to reduce the turnout of certain groups for partisan reasons. I will address each in turn.

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Opponents of voter identification laws point to the lack of successful prosecutions for voter fraud as proof that it is a made-up problem. But voter fraud is understandably hard to detect. The voters who are most susceptible to fraud –– those who do not turn out to vote –– are also the least likely to find out that someone voted in their name. Furthermore, with voter rolls in such disarray that, according to a Pew Research Center Study, 1.8 million dead people are registered to vote, is it surprising that it is difficult to find evidence of people voting fraudulently?

Even given that difficulty, however, cases of voter fraud are not unheard of. One hundred seventy-seven people were convicted of voter fraud in Minnesota’s prominent 2008 Senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. Nor is the problem isolated to one region: When New York City’s Department of Investigation decided to see how difficult it would be for 63 of its agents to vote in the names of other people, 61 of them succeeded in committing fraud.

Voter identification laws also serve an important purpose beyond preventing instances of fraud; they increase the public’s confidence in the integrity of elections. When verification of someone’s identity is based solely on whether a poll worker believes two signatures are a rough match, people are likely to be skeptical that elections reflect the true will of the electorate. That skepticism is compounded by frequent media reports that voter rolls across the nation include many noncitizens and presently incarcerated felons. It is no wonder that a majority of Americans support voter identification laws in nearly every poll commissioned on the subject.

Do voter identification laws completely solve these problems? Unfortunately, no. Efforts to remove ineligible voters from the rolls must also be a priority. But reducing the likelihood of false impersonation is a good start to reform. We shouldn’t let the imperfect be the enemy of the good.

But opponents of voter identification requirements make a final, more serious charge. They allege that voter identification laws are merely attempts by Republicans to disenfranchise constituencies that tend to vote Democratic. These laws, they say, are inherently discriminatory –– even reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

Critics are certainly correct when they say that some groups have higher rates of photo identification possession than other groups. But that alone does not prove that this is unacceptable discrimination for partisan gain for three reasons.

The first reason is that the groups that have lowers rates of photo identification possession do not all have Democratic leanings. While it is true that racial minorities, who tend to vote for Democrats, are somewhat less likely to presently posses valid photo identification, the same is true of elderly voters, who tend to vote Republican. That alone is enough to cast doubt on the idea that these laws are politically motivated. If the fact that even some discrepancies exist in who possesses voter identification makes you worry that these laws will disenfranchise voters en masse, recall the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, in which Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the burden on the right to vote imposed by such laws was so minimal as to be constitutionally permissible. It is also important to bear in mind that identification requirements are sometimes waived for those who vote absentee or by mail, further weakening the argument that voters will be shut out from having their voices heard.

Secondly, if the critics are right that requiring an identification to vote is discriminatory, why aren’t identification requirements in other contexts similarly discriminatory? By the logic of the opposition, requiring an identification to board an airplane, purchase alcohol or even obtain prescription cold medicine, discriminates against racial minorities. Sure, you may not have a constitutional right to those things, but does that make discrimination permissible? If Attorney General Eric Holder is willing to discriminate when it comes to who gets to enter the Justice Department building by requiring identification, why shouldn’t he let states come to their own conclusions about whether the potential benefits of voter identification laws outweigh their allegedly pernicious impacts?

Finally, recent history shows how racial minorities have not been significantly prevented from voting by these laws. African Americans and Hispanics both showed a near-record turnout in the 2008 and 2012 Presidential election, even in states that had recently instituted identification requirements. Apparently, minorities are not as incapable of obtaining free photo identification as many would have us believe.

The movement to institute this requirement in jurisdictions across the country represents a good-faith effort to limit voting to legal voters. Contrary to what critics may say, voter identification laws are not solutions in search of problems.

Julius Kairey is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Always Right appears alternate Thursdays this semester.