Sam Fishman will graduate from the University of Southern California in 2016 with a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Law and a minor in Cinematic Arts. After graduating, he plans to attend law school. When he’s not writing, you can find him on a film set or on the tennis courts.
The current structure of the American electoral system is a product of hundreds of years of political elections. Throughout this electoral history, the United States has employed numerous different means by which to regulate suffrage at the polls, including poll taxes, literacy and property tests, and registration acts, among others. As most of these mechanisms have since been outlawed as unlawfully discriminatory, voter identification laws serve as their present day counterpart. These voter identification laws, which require voters to present identification at the polls, are being enacted in an increasing number of states. Proponents of these laws espouse their necessity as an effective means of preventing voter fraud. Ultimately, this essay shall investigate whether there is a need for voter identification laws in the United States and their empirical effects.
The legacy of voter identification laws extends back to 1950 when South Carolina passed the first law requiring voters to bring some form of identification to the polls: “No photo was required—just a document bearing the voter’s name” (“Voter ID History,” paragraph 2). Since then, 34 states have passed voter identification laws, with 31 of these laws having entered into force. The 19 states without such laws allow voters to cast ballots without providing an identification document and rely on other means of verifying the identity of voters such as affidavits, signatures, and biographical information. Birthed as a means to combat in-person voter fraud, the voter identification laws currently in effect range a gamut of degrees of strictness. As the National Conference of State Legislatures explicates, “Voter ID laws can be categorized in two ways. First, the laws can be sorted by whether the state asks for a photo ID or whether it accepts IDs without a photo as well. Second, the laws can be divided by what actions are available for voters who do not have ID” (Underhill, paragraph 14). Comprising the 31 states with voter ID laws in place, 15 states require a photo ID to vote, and 16 states accept non-photo IDs. A driver’s license, passport, personal identification card, military identification card, and select other forms of ID can function as proper photo identification. Of these 31 states, 10 have strict procedures for registered voters lacking proper identification (be they photo or non-photo IDs depending on the state’s distinct requirement), and 21 have non-strict procedures. The states with non-strict procedures allow voters without proper identification to cast a ballot that will be counted pending verification of eligibility and registration by election officials after Election Day (these voters are sometimes required to sign an affidavit or some other statement of identity). The states with strict procedures require voters without proper identification to cast a provisional ballot and then return to an election office to provide proof of valid identification in order for the ballot to be counted. As such, while they embody the same stated purpose of combatting election fraud, the voter identification laws currently in effect in the United States are far from uniform and range greatly in degrees of strictness.
Turning to analysis of the validity and effectiveness of voter identification laws, proponents argue that such laws are necessary to preserve the integrity of elections and prevent voter fraud. For the most part, proponents identify with the Republican aisle of American politics and argue that, “the justification for photo-identification rests on concerns about voter fraud. Requiring all voters to show photo identification at the polls may…prevent people from impersonating actual voters or committing other sorts of voter fraud” (Ansolabehere, 129). Hans A. von Spakovsky, manager of The Heritage Foundation’s Election Law Reform Initiative, further expounds upon the need for voter ID laws as a means of extinguishing potential election fraud, contending that, “Voter ID can prevent: Impersonation fraud at the polls, voting under fictitious voter registrations, double voting by individuals registered in more than one state or locality, and voting by illegal aliens” (von Spakovsky, paragraph 4). This argument that voter ID laws are necessary to prevent fraud from compromising the integrity of elections is also well explicated in the State of Indiana’s defense in the 2007 Supreme Court case Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. The case reviewed and upheld the constitutionality of the voter ID law enacted in Indiana in 2005. This law is now in effect in Indiana and is currently the most restrictive in the United States, embodying all of the aforementioned strict requirements. In the Supreme Court case, Indiana defended the law on the grounds that, “far from frustrating fair elections, it makes them possible by reducing in-person voter fraud. If a voter must present photo identification, it will be harder for him to claim to be someone else” (Williams, 381). The court’s plurality opinion agreed that voter ID laws have the potential to deter election fraud and cited a history of voter fraud as rendering them as necessary: “It remains true…that flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country have been documented throughout this Nation’s history…that… demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election” (von Spakovsky, paragraph 6). Alongside this, proponents argue that voter identification laws are consistent with general standards in the United States: “Photo IDs currently are needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check” (von Spakovsky, paragraph 5). Thus, proponents cite widespread voter fraud and consistency with universal American standards as grounds for enactment of voter identification laws.
Critics of voter identification laws, on the other hand, pose an entirely different argument concerning the practical impacts of enacting such laws. First, critics argue that the issue that supposedly requires voter ID laws as a solution—in-person voter fraud—is illusory. Where proponents contend that voter fraud is widespread, critics contend the exact opposite, citing that there have been very few recent documented cases of voter fraud. On top of this, critics argue that voter identification laws are not actually effective in combatting modern day election fraud, as cases of such fraud now generally involve election officials changing results or tampering with absentee ballots. Critics, who are mainly Democrats, argue that Republicans posit this issue of voter fraud as a red herring to distract from “the law’s real motive of partisan advantage” (Williams, 384). According to critics, rather than a tool to combat election fraud, Republicans wield these laws as a political tool to skew elections in their favor by suppressing voter turnout from groups that tend to lean democratic. As the article “Voter Suppression Disenfranchises Millions” contends, “Although voter fraud is exceedingly rare, conservatives have been fabricating reasons to enact laws that disenfranchise as many potential voters as possible among certain groups” (Keyes, Millhiser, Van Ostern, & White, 11). Such critics assert that voter ID laws disproportionately affect and disenfranchise elderly, minority, and low- income groups, among select others, because of the cost and burden of obtaining photo IDs. As Richard Sobel and Robert Ellis Smith further point out concerning these groups in their journal article in PS: Political Science and Politics,
Poor voters often do not have access to, nor frequently use, government-issued photo identification because they lack cars and rarely travel by air…Minority voters who tend to be poorer and less educated are less likely to have driver’s licenses or the resources to obtain official photo identification…Elderly voters are also likely to encounter greater difficulty in traveling any distance to obtain identification (Sobel & Smith, 107).
Based on this argument that voter ID laws selectively disenfranchise these groups of voters, critics challenge the constitutionality of voter identification laws on the grounds that they abridge the fundamental constitutional right to vote. Critics also challenge the constitutionality of the laws on the grounds that voter ID laws create a de facto poll tax. Chandler Davidson, a legal professor at Rice University, argues that, “the law, in effect, constitutes a poll tax, inasmuch as there are costs to obtain the right kind of photo ID, costs that unduly burden many eligible citizens wanting to exercise their right to vote” (Davidson 93). The Voting Rights Act prohibits such tests from being used to regulate suffrage at the polls, and the Supreme Court has also struck down poll taxes, ruling that they violate the equal protection clause. Critics are worried that, “there is the very real possibility that voter-ID laws provide an opening for the reemergence of such practices” (Ansolabehere, 128). Ultimately, proponents and critics of voter identification laws have very distinct beliefs as to the necessity of the laws and how the laws will impact voters and elections when in effect.
Furthermore, now that voter identification laws have been in effect in many states for multiple years, research has been conducted to analyze the actual effects of the laws in practice. This research will determine whether voter ID laws are necessary and effective. Returning to the voter ID law in place in Indiana, in the years since being upheld, the law has had no success in thwarting voter fraud, as there is still, “no evidence of even on instance of in-person fraud in recent Indiana history” (Sobel & Smith, 107). While the law has had no impact on fraud, Indiana’s voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections hit a record low of 30%. This was a result of the fact that numerous registered voters lacked forms of photo identification. Looking at the demographics of these registered voters who were unable to cast ballots because of a lack of valid ID, using Indiana census and voter registration data, the scholarly journal article “The Disproportionate Impact of Voter-ID Requirements on the Electorate: New Evidence from Indiana” provides troubling data: among all registered voters in Indiana, 84.2% of whites possess valid photo identification compared to 78.0% of blacks, 89.8% of middle- aged voters possess valid photo identification compared to 83.6% of voters ages 70 and above, and 83.5% of those making over $80,000 per year possess valid photo identification compared to 80.5% of those making under $40,000 per year (Barreto, Nuño, & Sanchez, 113). Considering that each percentage point difference represents many thousands of people, these unequal distributions are statistically significant. This data affirms the condemnations of opponents of voter ID laws, demonstrating that the Indiana law does disproportionately suppress the vote of elderly, minority, and low- income groups. Next, the article reports the partisan breakdown of the registered voters who were unable to cast ballots because of a lack of valid ID. The data concludes that, “Registered voters in Indiana who identify as Republicans were more likely to have proper ID credentials than those who identified as Democrats” (Barreto, Nuño, & Sanchez, 114). The article’s data set found that 86.2% of Republicans possess valid photo identification compared to 81.7% of Democrats. This 4.5% gap is “large enough to affect election results in a close or competitive contest… If the law truly had an equal impact, we would expect to see the same rates of partisanship” (Barreto, Nuño, & Sanchez, 114). This partisan rift in possession of valid photo identification impacted the 2014 midterm elections in predictable fashion, with the GOP winning “all three statewide offices on Tuesday’s ballot and seven of nine Congressional seats” (Evans & Cook, paragraph 4). Thus, Indiana’s voter ID law did not accomplish anything other than suppressing the vote of select minority groups and skewing the rates of partisanship among registered voters. The lens of Indiana’s voter ID law is the most telling of the empirical effects of voter ID laws because the most research has been conducted on it than on the laws in effect in any other state. But looking at the more sparse research concerning the effects of voter ID laws in other states yields very similar results. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office analyzed election turnout in Kansas and Tennessee in the 2012 elections—states which made their voter ID requirements stricter between the 2008 and 2012 elections. The report found that, “falloff among black voters was nearly 4 percent greater than it was among whites in Kansas, and almost 2 percent larger among blacks than for whites in Tennessee,” echoing the trends seen in Indiana’s electorate (Fram, paragraph 9).
Unlike in Indiana, cases of election fraud have actually been documented in Texas. In the 2006 elections in Texas, 13 people were indicted for voter fraud. Voter ID requirements were not yet in place at the time, but they would not have prevented the type of fraud the 13 people were charged with: they “either involved political officials who were charged with engaging in illegal efforts to affect the election outcome, or persons who helped elderly or disabled friends with their mail-in ballots” (Davidson, 95). Thus, of the scarce number of recent documented cases of election fraud, voter ID laws are a wholly inefficient mechanism to combat them. These cases of fraud typify the types of voter fraud attempted in modern day elections, further rendering voter ID laws powerless in their stated purpose.
Finally, on top of all these facts concerning the empirical effects of voter identification laws on election turnout, voter demographics, rates of partisanship, and election fraud, the financial requirements of voter ID laws place an undue burden both on registered voters lacking valid ID and American taxpayers. The Crawford v. Marion County Election Board decision required that states with voter ID laws in place provide free voter IDs to those lacking them so as to prevent the laws from becoming a poll tax. But as a Harvard Law School report titled The High Cost of ‘Free’ Photo Voter Identification Cards explains, “factors of time, travel and out-of-pocket expenses” make it so that “free” voter IDs are not actually free (Sobel, 2). The report goes on to further explicate this, stating that, “the expenses for documentation, travel, and waiting time are significant—especially for minority group and low-income voters—typically ranging from about $75 to $175… Even when adjusted for inflation, these figures represent substantially greater costs than the $1.50 poll tax outlawed by the 24th amendment in 1964” (Sobel, 2). Based on this data, voter ID laws as they are currently in effect do constitute a de facto poll tax as they require registered voters currently lacking valid identification to spend money in order to participate at the polls. In regards to American taxpayers, implementation costs of voter ID legislation are set to spend enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars. According to the Voting Rights Institute’s report, as a result of the passage of voter ID laws, “taxpayers across the country will pay at least $276 million and up to $828 million” (Voting Rights Institute, 1).
Ultimately, based on the aforementioned research findings, there is no legitimate need for voter identification laws as cases of voter fraud are very scarce and the laws are not even effective for combatting the types of the few cases that do spring up. What the laws do accomplish, though, are disproportionately suppressing the vote of elderly, minority, and low-income groups, skewing partisan rates in elections, implementing a de facto poll tax, and wasting enormous amounts of taxpayer money on this ineffective legislation. Given these facts, voter identification laws must be outlawed in favor of finding other solutions for combatting election fraud. One such solution would be the creation of a more in depth and up-to-date voter registration database that includes photos of each voter and then requiring voters to sign affidavits at voting polls to confirm they are who they claim to be.
Ansolabehere, Stephen. “Effects of Identification Requirements on Voting: Evidence from the Experiences of Voters on Election Day.” PS: Political Science and Politics 42:1 (2009): 127-30.
Barreto, Matt A., Stephen A. Nuño and Gabriel R. Sanchez. “The Disproportionate Impact of Voter-ID Requirements on the Electorate: New Evidence from Indiana.” PS: Political Science and Politics 42:1 (2009): 111-16.
Davidson, Chandler. “The Historical Context of Voter Photo-ID Laws.” PS: Political Science and Politics 42:1 (2009): 93-96.
Evans, Tim, and Tony Cook. “Indiana Voter Turnout Hit Record Low as GOP Romped to Victory.” Indy Star. The Indianapolis Star, 5 Nov. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Fram, Alan. “Study: Voter ID Laws Cut Turnout by Blacks, Young.” The Big Story. Associated Press, 8 Oct. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Keyes, Scott, Ian Millhiser, Tobin Van Ostern and Abraham White. “Voter Suppression Disenfranchises Millions.” Race, Poverty & the Environment 19:1 (2012): 11-12.
Sobel, Richard. The High Cost of ‘Free’ Photo Voter Identification Cards. Rep. Charles Hamilton Houston Institute For Race & Justice Harvard Law School, June 2014. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
Sobel, Richard and Robert Ellis Smith. “Voter-ID Laws Discourage Participation, Particularly among Minorities, and Trigger a Constitutional Remedy in Lost Representation.” PS: Political Science and Politics 42:1 (2009): 107-10.
The Real Cost of Photo ID: An Unnecessary, Expensive, and Intrusive Voter Restriction in a Time of Fiscal Crisis. Rep. Voting Rights Institute, 9 Sept. 2014. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
Underhill, Wendy. “Voter Identification Requirements | Voter ID Laws.” National Conference of State Legislatures. National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 Oct. 2014. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.
Williams, David. “The Supreme Court and Indiana’s Voter ID Law.” Indiana Magazine of History 104:4 (2008): 379-85.
Von Spakovsky, Hans A. Requiring Photographic Identification by Voters in North Carolina. Issue brief no. 1234. The Heritage Foundation, 18 July 2013. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.
“Voter ID History.” National Conference of State Legislatures. National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.