Throughout the 2012 campaign, a new issue has taken its place among the traditional election-year talking points. With the Justice Department’s challenge of Texas’ 2011 voter ID law, voter identification legislation has become a polarizing issue and is likely to figure into the election.
Thirty-three states have enacted some form of voter ID legislation. While these measures were unheard of just a decade ago, they have now become as divisive an issue as any.
What are the voter ID laws?
The laws require people who wish to vote to present a photo ID at their polling location. Passed in states like Texas and Pennsylvania, these laws are intended to curb a particular form of voter fraud called voter impersonation — voting under someone else’s name.
These laws have no effect on the voter registration process, so individuals who register fraudulently could still vote provided they have a photo ID to confirm their identity.
Is voter fraud a problem?
The main problem with these laws? Voter fraud in the United States is incredibly rare, and the type of fraud these laws seek to curb — voter impersonation — is virtually non-existent.
During the 2000s, the Bush administration attempted to crack down on voter fraud, but after five years of intensive efforts, only 86 voters had been convicted. Many instances were mistakes or the result of a misunderstanding.
In his defense of the Texas ID law, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott claimed since 2002 there were 50 election fraud convictions in Texas. However, according to PolitiFact, this statement is only half true, as only 26 of the cases actually resulted in convictions, and only two were designated “voter impersonation,” the type of fraud that voter ID laws theoretically combat.
Additionally, in his defense of the law, Texas Director of Elections Keith Ingram initially claimed that 239 dead people had voted in Texas elections last year, only to later amend that total to just four individuals, attributing the difference to “clerical errors.”
Finally, according to Loyola law professor Justin Levitt, only 13 occurrences of voter identification fraud are confirmed to have occurred in the United States between 2000 and 2010. According to Mother Jones, UFO sightings are more common.
What’s really going on here?
So, with the incredibly scant evidence of voter fraud and the pathetically insignificant amount of fraud that would actually be prevented by these voter ID laws, what is actually going on?
Perhaps it is best to let the politicians speak for themselves, as Republican Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said about a month ago, “[Pennsylvania’s] voter ID [...] is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
The reason these voter ID laws are likely to tilt the election in favor of the Republicans is that they are significantly more likely to affect groups who typically vote Democrat, one group being minorities.
Nationwide, 25% of African Americans and 16% of Latinos do not have the identification required under these laws compared to 8% of whites, according to the NAACP.
Texas’ voter ID law also discourages student votes, as concealed handgun licenses are considered acceptable identification while university student IDs are not. (Remember, these IDs are needed just to prove you are who you say you are, not to prove citizenship or residency.)
Similarly, while Pennsylvania’s ID law allows student IDs to be used, only 15 of 110 Pennsylvania universities’ IDs met the specifications required by law.
With such a huge portion of the electorate potentially suppressed by these measures and virtually no evidence of any voter fraud problem, it is hard to see these laws as anything but a shrewd political move.
Why are these laws so popular?
It does not surprise me that politicians have passed laws that they know will suppress voter turnout in order to keep their jobs — both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of similar activities such as gerrymandering for years.
What is surprising is that this blatant political move has been so wildly popular — not just among Republicans, but with independents and even some Democrats.
The problem is that, on their face, the laws seem so reasonable.
I have an ID. Everyone I know has an ID. How could someone possibly live in the modern world without an ID?
However, for a large portion of our society — 11% to be exact — this lack of ID is a reality.
And for many, obtaining an ID is not as easy as it may seem. In Texas for instance, only 81 of the 254 counties have locations in which people can obtain the necessary IDs, meaning that many wishing to vote would have to travel hundreds of miles just to obtain the identification needed.
For many affected, this is virtually impossible and for most it is largely impractical.
With the 2012 election shaping up to be a narrow one, voter ID laws have the potential to suppress large numbers of minority and student votes serving as a barrier to, not a safeguard of, our representative democracy.
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