Voter ID is not a big deal. Or, rather, it is a big deal, but it probably shouldn’t be. Let me back up a bit. Over the past decade, there has been a growing movement in a number of states to require individuals to show photo identification when voting. Twelve states have adopted a photo ID requirement so far, and more than a dozen others are considering it.
Proponents of Voter ID contend that the measure is necessary to combat voter fraud. Opponents, however, claim that the laws have a more nefarious purpose. At a speech before Al Sharpton’s National Action Network earlier this month, President Obama claimed that, efforts like Voter ID were a malign attempt to disenfranchise Americans: “About 60 percent of Americans don’t have a passport,” Obama said. “Just because you can’t have the money to travel abroad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to vote here at home.”
A law that limited voting to people who presented their passports would be odd. In reality, the requirements can be met by a variety of different photo IDs, including drivers licenses, and even free state-issued ID cards.
While a trip to the DMV may feel like a civil rights violation, if Voter ID was designed to suppress votes then it is failing miserably at its purpose. Voter turnout, including among minorities, actually increased substantially after the enactment of Voter ID in several states.
Of course, it could be that turnout would have increased even more in the absence of Voter ID. But what’s notable is that despite the validity of the laws being litigated in numerous states—they’ve made two trips already to the Supreme Court (which sided with the pro-ID folks both times)—opponents of Voter ID have been able to provide scant evidence that it is actually disenfranchising eligible voters. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, Justice John Paul Stevens (not known for being a conservative), noted that “evidence presented in the District Court does not provide any concrete evidence of the burden imposed on voters who currently lack photo identification.”
If it’s hard to find examples of individuals who were disenfranchised by Voter ID, it may be because most people already have the necessary identification. A study by American University’s Center for Democracy and Election Management found that only 1.2 percent of registered voters lack photo identification. Given how ubiquitous showing ID is in everyday life, this shouldn’t be surprising. A photo ID requirement for voting was one of the election reforms proposed by the 2005 Commission on Federal Election Reform headed by James Baker and Jimmy Carter (also not a conservative).
So: Voter ID is not a big deal. If we were like many European countries, where a photo ID has been long required at the polls, no one would even think of calling the laws a voter suppression tactic. Even in America, Voter ID laws are broadly popular. According to a 2012 poll, 70 percent of Americans supported a photo ID requirement for voting, including a majority (52 percent) of Democrats.
On the other hand, some of the claims made on behalf of Voter ID are also overblown. In a past life as an attorney, I worked in election law, and I can tell you that voter fraud is real. But I can also tell you that if someone wants to swing an election based on fraud, in-person voter impersonation (which is what Voter ID guards against) is about the worst way to go about it. It’s risky—the person you are trying to impersonate may have already voted, and witnesses will see your face—and at most you can only get one additional vote for each attempt. The real issues of voter fraud involve things like corrupt poll workers, ballot stuffing, and vote by mail, none of which Voter ID protects against. Voter ID laws might increase the perception that elections are fair (which is not unimportant), but as a means of preventing stolen elections they are neither necessary nor sufficient.
In all likelihood, the most significant result of Voter ID laws will be neither voter suppression nor voter fraud prevention; it’s that more people will get free IDs. Given the difficulties in contemporary life that come from not having a photo ID, it’s plausible that the laws could be a tangible benefit to those who, for whatever reason, haven’t been able to get identification before.
Ultimately, then, Voter ID is less about consequences (good or bad), and more about symbolism. It’s neither the end of democracy nor necessary to preserve it. Instead, the laws help a few disadvantaged folks get identification, and give the rest of us a bit more peace of mind about the integrity of the electoral system. And it gives partisans on both sides an opportunity to accuse each other of perfidy. Which is not such a bad deal, really.