March 9, 2007

Commentary:

The Fraud Of Voter ID Laws

By Michael Slater and Nathan Henderson-James

Given the deep interest in ensuring free and fair elections after the controversies in 2000 and 2004, it is little wonder that voter identification requirements have garnered widespread support from Americans, even from pro-gressives, who have traditionally supported increased access to the ballot. After all, who can be against safeguarding the integrity of the voter rolls with such a seemingly simple solution?

Mounting evidence, however, suggests that voter ID laws actually do very little to ensure polling-place integrity, while very clearly suppressing turnout among constituencies that have traditionally struggled to gain a voice in the democratic process.

Just last month, the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University presented new research findings to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission that suggest Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans are less likely to vote as a result of increasingly restrictive voter ID requirements. The Eagleton study examined the 2004 election and concluded that in states requiring voters to present an ID at the polls, voters were 2.7 percent less likely to vote than in states where voters were merely required to state their names. Latinos were 10 percent less likely to vote, Asian-Americans 8.5 percent less likely to vote and African Americans 5.7 percent less likely to vote. Since the research depended on the November 2004 Current Population Survey (CPS), a data set that has been criticized for its small sample size of minorities, it may actually understate the impact of ID requirement on minority voters.

The Eagleton Institute research is supported by findings from a poll conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law in November 2006. Their poll, “Citizens without Proof,” found that as many as 11 percent of Americans—more than 21 million individuals—do not have a current, government-issued photo ID. Elderly, poor and minority Americans are more likely to lack government-issued ID. Polling results suggest six million elderly Americans do not possess a government-issued photo ID, 15 percent of voting-age citizens earning under $35,000 a year do not possess such ID and fully 25 percent of voting-age African Americans do not possess this ID.

While proponents of restrictive voter ID requirements argue that they are needed to combat voter fraud, there is no evidence that the type of fraud that these requirements address—voters who misrepresent their identity—has occurred at any point since records have been kept. In fact, since 2002, the Department of Justice found only 38 cases of any voter fraud worthy of prosecution in the entire country. According to Barnard College Professor Loraine Minnite, the available state-level evidence of fraudulent voting, culled from interviews, reviews of newspaper coverage and court proceedings, yields similarly negligible results. Minnite’s comprehensive analysis, “The Politics of Vote Fraud,” was recently released by Project Vote.

Traditionally, voters have been able to state their names to poll workers, who then check them off on the poll books. Voters faced felony charges if they attempted to vote more than once or under a false name. Now, however, 24 states require voters to show some form of identification and seven specify photo ID. And already this year, another 14 states have bills establishing strict voter ID requirements pending before their legislatures: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin. While some of the bills have met a well-deserved death, others seem likely to pass. Even more ominously, several bills require individuals to prove their citizenship status at the time they register to vote.

Proponents of voter ID laws suggest that there are few obstacles to obtaining appropriate ID. Besides, they say, voting is a both a privilege and duty, so Americans should not be put off from voting by a few necessary bureaucratic hurdles. They’re wrong on two counts.

First, again according to the Brennan Center, as many as 13 million U.S. citizens, or seven percent, do not have ready access to citizenship documents, making the requirement to obtain a photo ID unduly onerous. Second, voting is a right, one that many people had to risk their lives here at home to obtain. It is not a privilege, like owning a bank account or driving a car.

Government at all levels has an obligation to help citizens exercise their rights, including the right to vote. After all, unlike others rights, such as speech, government controls all the mechanisms by which this right is exercised. Laws that create barriers to voting must prove that they are not hindering more legally eligible citizens from voting than they are catching ineligible voters. Given the infrequency of voter fraud in America and the Eagleton Institute findings that show voter ID laws reduce minority participation, voter ID laws clearly fail this cost-benefit test. 

Michael Slater is the deputy director of Project Vote and director of its elections administration program. Nathan Henderson-James is the director of Project Vote’s strategic writing and research department. Reprinted from TomPaine.common sense (http://www.tompaine.com).

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