Protecting or Suppressing the Vote?

Under the argument that states need to protect themselves against voter fraud, Republicans are making a unified push for election reform, and at the forefront is the campaign for implementing and strengthening voter ID requirements. It is one of the popular topics of legislation, as 20 states that did not have laws requiring voter ID at the polls at the beginning of 2011 are seeing legislation proposing it this year. Kansas, Wisconsin, and Tennessee have joined Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, and Texas on the list of states with strict photo ID laws, and the Pennsylvania House backed a photo ID bill on Thursday. On the other side, aspiring bills were recently veteod in North Carolina, Missouri, and New Hampshire. In his veto message, New Hampshire Governor John Lynch wrote, “There is no voter fraud problem in New Hampshire. We already have strong election laws that are effective in regulating our elections.”

Oddly enough, requiring a photo ID to cast a vote would only be effective in preventing individuals from impersonating other voters at the polls–an occurrence that is, according to a study released by the Brennan Center, more rare than getting struck by lightning. In fact, voter fraud (when individuals cast ballots despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote, in an attempt to defraud the election system) is hardly a realistic political concern. From the Bush administration’s five-year national “war on voter fraud,” there were only 86 convictions of illegal voting out of more than 196 million votes cast. Of those 86 convictions, only 26 were attributable to individual voters, and most of those were misunderstandings about eligibility. What is more, connection to voter fraud in a federal election carries grave punishments, including a $10,000 fine and five years in prison, in addition to any state penalties. This is a risk that very few people are willing to take, particularly for the result of one incremental vote.

Whether by intention or not, politicians and media have managed to conflate a host of election administration problems under the umbrella of “voter fraud”–a move which has fueled a Republican-backed campaign across multiple states to pass voter ID laws. Things like clerical or typhographical errors in the poll books, registration records, and underlying data are examples of occurrences that may get mistaken for voter fraud. Justin Levitt, author of The Truth About Voter Fraud, cites matching voter rolls against each other or against some other source to find alleged double voters, dead voters, or otherwise ineligible voters as the most common source of superficial claims of voter fraud, as well as the most common source of error. Thus, it is largely human error in the voting process that results in inaccurate accusations of voter fraud and feeds exaggerated concern over this “phantom problem”.

The zeal for voter photo ID legislation, particularly as the answer to the virtually non-existent threat of voter fraud, raises necessary questions of purpose and effect. In bills like the one vetoed in New Hampshire earlier this week, voters without acceptable identification at the polls would be permitted to cast a provisional ballot, and they would have to return to election officials within a fixed number of days after Election Day to provide appropriate ID. Needless to say, this puts undue stress on voters, especially senior citizens, students, people without adequate transportation, those who are differently-abled, and of course, people who don’t already have IDs. Voting can already be a strenuous process for various reasons; why should the government spend money to make it more difficult to exercise a fundamental democratic right? The supporting side argues that since people use an ID to rent a car, board a flight, or check into a hotel, voting should be no different. But isn’t voting a right everyone should have equal right and accessibility to?

Voter ID requirements are generally just one part of legislation that proposes multiple adjustments to state voting procedures. In Florida, cases are already being made for why the omnibus elections bill will have a direct retrogressive effect on the right to vote based on race and membership to a language minority group–a clear violation of Section of 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Things like the shortening of the early voting period, new restrictions on third-party voter registration efforts, and alterations to how voters may vote if they update their address at the polls, will all affect black, Hispanic, and Spanish-speaking Floridians at a rate disproportionate to that of white and English-speaking Floridians. This supports theories of voter suppression as a conservative strategy that targets populations most likely to vote Democrat. There have also been questions of whether requiring people to pay for a government-issued ID in order to vote is akin to a poll tax, which would be a violation of the 24th amendment.

Cases like the one in Florida, in which there is an unambiguous connection between proposed changes and the disenfranchisement of race and language minority groups, demonstrate the use of election reform as a partisan political tool. Under the guise of protecting elections, the integral democratic right to vote is being transformed into a privilege and a prize.



Jalen is a writer and DJ based in Los Angeles, California.

Latest posts by JC (see all)

  • MH8D

    I don’t have any illusions about the motives behind Voter ID laws, but I also don’t understand why anyone would be seriously and actively opposed to it.

    How much of a real hardship is it for anyone – senior citizens included – to carry and show a photo ID when they vote? Anyone that needs to buy alcohol, pick up their own mail from a post office, drive a car, use a credit card, fill a prescription, or cash a check should be used to showing photo ID…

    As a black man subject to random stop and frisks and occasionally fitting descriptions, I really don’t understand why anyone would ever be caught anywhere without a photo ID, so I honestly wouldn’t have a problem with taking mine out of my pocket to vote.

    • DVE

      A lot of people don’t have a valid ID with their current address on it. If you move a lot, it’s just not practical to get an ID for every address, especially if you know you’ll only be living someplace for a few months. Also, some states make it hard– between grad school and my first full time job, I lived with my mother for six months, and then sublet someone else’s apartment in my former neighborhood for 3 months. I literally did not qualify for an ID in either of those states, because I couldn’t produce a lease or utility bill with my name on it, and those were the only accepted proofs of residency for a new ID, if your old state ID had expired. Luckily, unlike most americans, I had a passport to use for general ID pruposes, but I missed the Democratic primary that year because as far as Virginia was concerned, I was not a Virginia resident, even though at the time I lived there and nowhere else. A lot of people live someplace– even long term– where their name never appears on a lease or utility bill, and that’s particularly true of younger people and people with limited income.

  • Pingback: Protecting or Suppressing the Vote? « NOMARTYR()

  • Jeremy

    good post.

  • Whitney (@arieswym)

    buy alcohol, pick up their own mail from a post office, drive a car, use a credit card, fill a prescription, or cash a check

    You have a constitutional right to vote as a US citizen, you do not have a constitutional right to do the things mentioned above. From a 2006 Brennan Center report 11% of voting age Americans did not have access to current, government issue ID. Generally you need ID, to get acceptable ID. Low-income Americans may not have the extra cash to get a new ID and very few states give their residents free ID.

    Currently, those most likely to not have valid ID are the poor and/or Black/Brown. All likely to vote for the Democrats, giving the GOP state legislatures extra impetus to impose onerous voting laws.

    • MH8D

      I understand your point, like I said, I have no illusions about the motives behind voter ID laws.

      Voting is a constitutional right, but I think that filling prescriptions and cashing checks would actually be higher priorities in real life for most people. Presidential elections happen every 4 years, people need their checks monthly, and they need their medicine (and for some, alcohol) daily.

      I’ve known people who were recently released from prison that would carry and use their prison-issued photo ID to get by until they could get their driver’s license sorted out… guys with no job, and no address, but they won’t be caught outside without a photo ID.

      Pennsylvania will issue a non-driver’s photo ID for $13.50 with a social security card and birth certificate.

      I don’t buy poverty as a good reason to not have a photo ID – poor minorities honestly NEED to have their ID more than anyone else. If you are an adult living in America every day with no form of photo ID, then you are either highly dysfunctional or you are an illegal immigrant. Either way, perhaps you shouldn’t vote until you get that straightened out.

      • VC

        First – and I invite you to prove me wrong – I’m going to venture to say your idea that any adult living in the U.S. without a photo ID is “either highly dysfunctional or … an illegal immigrant” is unfounded.

        Second, the fact is that certain groups are less likely to have the necessary government-issued IDs, and those groups include people who are older, low-income, differently-abled, black and brown, and students.

        Third, even if what you are saying were true, I take issue with the ideological premise that certain people shouldn’t vote. If we are purporting to be a democracy, we should be that.

        Lastly, this voter ID legislation is expensive. It’s not only objectionable on the basis that it disenfranchises eligible voters; it’s also a waste of time and money, as the ‘benefit’ is minuscule.

        • MH8D

          “Third, even if what you are saying were true, I take issue with the ideological premise that certain people shouldn’t vote. If we are purporting to be a democracy, we should be that”

          Then you should take issue with the electoral college, which exists and functions on the premise that the common electorate is not qualified to choose the president.

          Do you have a photo ID? Do you know anyone personally who does not? You need photo ID to get a job. You also need photo ID to cash a social security or welfare check. Who are these people without identification and how do they eat?

          • VC

            I have an ID because I’ve traveled outside of the country and grew up in a place where driving is the norm. I can recognize that this is not everyone’s reality. I can’t say I’m aware of someone in my life who doesn’t have a government-issued photo ID (although it’s not exactly a prime conversation topic), but there are people — millions of them — for whom this is the case. And these people will be disenfranchised by blatantly discriminatory voter ID laws. That’s enough information for me. I don’t need to be able to personally relate to or make sense of or even have knowledge of people’s circumstances to support their right to vote. It’s a principle.

            The electoral college is another topic although I’d like to point out that part of what the old heads were going for when they implemented it was avoiding that whole tyranny of the majority thing, which… is essentially what you’re rooting for with these voter ID laws. As long as it only affects an unimaginable minority that’s probably dysfunctional/jobless/not filling prescriptions, etc..?

            • MH8D

              I think that you have the wrong idea about what I’m saying. You’re making my position out to be more extreme than it actually is.

              All I’m saying is:

              A. I think that there are more important things to worry about. If you really are who you say you are, then you can get an ID.

              B. There are a lot of good reasons why everyone needs a valid photo ID. Most of these situations come up more often than voting does. So why not get an ID? Then you’ll be ready when it’s time to vote.

              That’s all. Yes, their trying to suppress the votes of poor minorities, but this is like matador defense. If you are a citizen and you really want to vote, then they can’t stop you with this.

              Our society operates on a balance of individual rights AND order. I am in favor of civil rights, but I am also very opposed to chaos.

              Some people have used the lack of documented voter fraud cases to suggest that there is no need to identify people at the polls. The whole point is that they have no idea what the fraud situation really is, because there is no requirement to identify people at the polling places… If you use my name to vote, and I for some reason never make it to polls to be told that ‘I’ voted already, then who makes the fraud complaint and how would they ever know that it happened?

      • hannah

        who made you the arbiter of what constitutes a legitimate reason for not having valid ID? the point is that it should NOT be required in order to cast a ballot. Legislatively speaking anyhow, you’re forgetting the point that new hampshire governor and several other sensible senators have made: our election laws were never in need of reforming. whether or not a person “should” have an id in order to be a functional adult as you measure it, it should not be a requisite to political participation.

      • rikyrah

        This isn’t about whether they can afford an ID – which should be a point.

        lower income people are more transient than other populations. things happen, and they have to move. maybe you don’t consider this. it’s not about having just a picture, state done ID – it’s about having one at a specific address. what, are they supposed to get one for every address?


      • K

        I agree with what you’re saying – I think a lot of the other commentors are either willfully twisting or misunderstanding what you are saying.

        I agree there has to be something seriously wrong with you to not OWN a photo ID. This is NOT the same as saying “people with mental illness should not be allowed to vote”. People who read it that way must simply have problems finding a valid comeback to your argument and, as such, must make up a fake argument.

        Perhaps such an enforcement would make it easier for people to get valid state IDs.

        • are you this cat’s cousin or something?

          the other commenters have pointed out the logistical hurdles to acquiring and ID for huge swaths of the population — none of which are sufficient reasons why the non-ID’d should be denied the right to vote.

          this is the equivalent of going into a comment thread and calling people who present a reasoned critique of some singer/movie you love and responding with “y’all just haters.”

          come on, fam. do better.

  • hannah

    it’s almost as if you are suggesting that passing legislation that is both expensive and unnecessary is something that people in the country shouldn’t pay attention to so long as it doesnt affect most “functional” people.

    it’s deep rooted ideas about inclusion, privilege and power that breed positions like yours. you should investigate that.

  • rikyrah

    there haven’t been enough voter fraud cases to fill your local McDonalds.

    this is all about VOTER SUPPRESSION.

  • To get an ID, you need a mailing address, one that will be valid for you for around 8 weeks or so, and you must be able to get to that mailing address to pick up your mail.

    Think about that for a minute.

    Do you comprehend how many folks in the US, especially given the current economic climate, for whom this is not a possibility?

    I went a couple years where it wouldn’t have been a possibility for me. I might have been able to scrape up the $20 an ID cost, but not the $100 getting a PO box to have it sent too might have cost me.

    The homeless, the transient, the migrant worker, many students, abused spouses and children, will all be disenfranchised by this.

    In short, the people who NEED the government the most will be denied the ability to participate.

    • and it might not have even mattered if you had the $100 for a P.O. box; some states will not ship I.D.’s to P.O. boxes.

  • Pingback: Feministing’s Weekly Reader – Enjoy! « Under the same sky()

  • labman57

    Voting and registering to vote are two separate things. There have been well-publicized incidents of voter registration fraud perpetrated by groups supporting both major parties in previous elections, but actual voter fraud (i.e., at the polls during an election) is extremely rare.

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • Pingback: Weekly Feminist Reader()

  • Annie B

    What the debate seems to come down to is:

    Side A: What is the big deal? People get asked for ID every day. Most people who have a right to vote will have no problems.
    Side B: But what if some people do have problems? That would be wrong!

    Thing is? BOTH A and B are correct statements. Most people who have a right to vote will have no problem with these laws, and some people will.

    How many? We don’t know.

    Really. There is NO DATA because no one is checking the ID now.

    My compromise? (Which will be hated by all sides. I take that as proof of virtue.) For some term – say the next 2 years or so -why not ASK for ID – mark down when ID is shown – but allow people to VOTE if they have it or not.

    No one’s right will be imposed upon. If you don’t wish to show ID – then don’t.

    Run a computer program to tabulate the declines and the errors and the frauds. (Frauds being when person B shows up with valid ID only to find that she/he has already voted without showing ID, and errors being where two voter show up both with matching or confused ID.)

    Once we have some solid data and know if there is a problem or not ( and what exactly the problem is – if any) THEN we will be in a position to pass laws to correct matters.

  • Whitney (@arieswym)

    Here’s an article highlighting the difficulty that citizens without ID have in getting free, valid ID in Wisconsin, which now mandates ID starting with the 2012 election.