Commentary: The Evidence Continues to Mount Against Voter ID

Lawmakers should come together to enact policies that address the true structural deficiencies in our democracy. 

Posted: 08/13/2012 11:12 AM EDT

A wave of disenfranchising legislation that has washed through state houses across the country since the 2010 elections has the potential of taking away the right to vote from eligible citizens in ways this country hasn’t seen since the era of the civil rights movement (see the Lawyers’ Committee’s Map of Shame). Proponents of these laws have justified them by claiming voter fraud threatens the integrity of our elections. However, the only type of fraud that strict photo ID requirements would prevent — the impersonation of another voter — is so rare there were only nine reported cases between 2000 and 2007, during a period when 400 million votes were cast.

Before the recent trial over Pennsylvania’s photo ID law, the State admitted it had no evidence of any attempts at voter impersonation fraud, and had no reason to expect any in the upcoming November election. Additionally, the Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania State House, Mike Turzai, declared the state’s voter ID law will “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” These concessions undermine repeated justifications that ID laws protect against rampant voter fraud. Even the Bush administration's Department of Justice, who aggressively pursued voter fraud cases during a five-year span from 2002 to 2007, found a woefully minute amount of available evidence to support claims of fraud. Clearly, voter ID laws are not about fraud, and are rather a solution in search of a problem.

So what is the real impact of strict government-issued photo ID laws?  

During the Pennsylvania trial, it was revealed that less than 86 percent of eligible Pennsylvania voters possess the required ID. While getting ID may seem like a simple task for some, in reality, it can be difficult, if not impossible. The documents required to get the “free” ID can cost upwards of $50 and states across the country are slashing hours at the DMV making it quite difficult to get to an ID-issuing center, particularly for working Americans without paid leave. 

The most compelling insight into the havoc wrought by photo ID is the stories of the eligible voters they succeed in disenfranchising — eligible voters like U.S. citizen and U.S. Army veteran Carl Ellis, a 52-year old living in Wisconsin. Ellis is currently living in a homeless shelter for veterans and has no income or savings; he also has no acceptable form of ID under the Wisconsin law and cannot afford a certified copy of his birth certificate. He does, however, possess an ID with his name and photograph issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — but the restrictive Wisconsin voter ID law does not accept such identification. (The Wisconsin ID law has since been enjoined by state courts).

Instead of erecting barriers to the ballot box to combat a non-existent problem, our legislators should come together in a bipartisan fashion to enact policies that address the true structural deficiencies in our democracy. Policies like modernizing registration to a system that automatically registers eligible Americans and moves with them, and the strengthening of state and federal protections against deceptive election practices will truly restore Americans’ faith in our great democracy.    

Eric Marshall is the co-leader of Election Protection and Manager of Legal Mobilization at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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