America still has a problem. Despite our country’s oft-touted reputation as a shining beacon of democracy and freedom, severe voter apathy and low turnout, not voter fraud (only 9 possible instances of voter impersonation were reported from 2002-2007 according to protectingthevote.com), are once again looking like huge issues for the candidates for the Presidency and others running for office in November’s contests. For a moderate GOP candidate like, lower than average anticipated voter turnout could mean that white Evangelicals, as well as libertarians have chosen to sit this election out. And for President Obama and other Democrats, a lower than expected turnout might provide evidence that, in addition to the historic narrative of 2008 being a thing of the past, red state efforts to make voting more difficult for the working poor, the young, the disabled, and minorities are working to theirs and our democracy’s detriment.
In states such as Georgia, which along with seven other US states (Texas and South Carolina have not yet precleared their laws with the Department of Justice) has a strict voter photo ID requirement for in-person voting, the elderly poor and other underrepresented groups will no doubt become further dissuaded from making the effort to vote if it means they need to make and additional trip (which requires transportation costs) to purchase a photo ID. The fact that the already dismal voter turnout figures in Georgia (49% average over the past three Presidential elections according to Census.gov) and across the country (54%) are being held down not only by the apathy that already plagues the voting-age populace, but also by the additional ID requirements, means that there is a self-inflicted negative impact on a fundamental tenant of our democracy, the right of the people to vote and to have a voice in the democratic process.
States with strict photo ID laws in place have consistently argued that no one is actually turned away at the polls for not having an ID, and that those without ID can by law cast provisional ballots which shall be counted if the individual produces proof of ID within a specified time period. However, despite wide public support for the ID concept, it is naïve to believe that the chance to cast a provisional ballot, that may not be counted, is going to persuade an individual without a photo ID to make the journey to the polling place to vote knowing their vote will not be counted unless they eventually take the extra step of obtaining an ID and proving they are who they say they are.
It’s also difficult to articulate how requiring additional steps beyond detailed voter registration, where proof of citizenship by social security number or driver’s license number is already a requirement in many states, amounts to anything less than a poll tax if it requires a particular type of photo ID that cannot be obtained without traveling to an office, getting the ID made, and paying whatever fee is required to do so. Taking it a step further, the law in states like Georgia permits only particular photo IDs listed on the Secretary of State’s website, which do not include student IDs from private colleges and universities, but do allow hunting permits to be presented without issue. Still, because it is impossible to measure with accuracy why an individual decides not to vote, the issue of measurability of any disparate impact as a result of this type of de facto tax remains at the heart and soul of the debate over the constitutionality of these laws.
As mentioned above, the argument is that there is no hard data to support the argument that the vote is being suppressed due to photo ID requirements. However, when we consider that most objective people would agree that adding an additional step that costs money to any process, no matter how nominal, at some point becomes a dissuasive factor in choosing to take part in the activity affected, here voting, then as a result it is fairly obvious that there is some sort of impact on voter turnout even if no hard data is obtainable. For example, a Brief Amicus Curiae of Rock the Vote noted that 1/5 of 18-29 year olds don’t have a driver’s license, and according to protectingthevote.com 19% of Latinos, 25% of African Americans, and 20% Asian Americans lack a government-issued photo ID compared to 8% of Whites. Bottom line, our lawmakers should know that one of the underlying purposes of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 was to protect the right to vote as fundamental to all Americans, regardless of income level, race, color, or any other stereotypical classification. Photo ID requirements are simply a proxy for a broader effort to discourage the above classifications of groups from casting a legal ballot.
It is already a crime to impersonate another American using false identification; such deterrence takes care of any concern of fraud for 99.99% of the voting age populace. Sure, there may be a handful of cases every decade, but there is no justification for additional legal hurdles if there is no large scale problem to be solved. To the contrary, we should be doing everything we can as a society to make it easier to vote. We should be looking at ways to administer secure online elections, improve online registration services, consider moving the Election Day to the weekend to raise turnout, and begin modernizing our electoral process to make it more convenient for our social media driven society. We should not use the simple fear of losing an election veiled in non-factual voter fraud concerns as a reason to create proxies for voter suppression.
Unfortunately, many courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have largely bought into the myth that there is widespread voter fraud which justifies stricter voting laws, but the numbers volunteered by advocates of photo ID laws just do not add up to widespread fraud, and what is truly left is a disparate impact on the most vulnerable and least well off in our society. If we are to use grandiose rhetoric in describing our democracy, we should begin to set an example by doing whatever possible to lift our country from the basement of voter turnout amongst free nations. Despite the majority opinion, these new laws are simply a step back in the wrong direction, and the resulting apathy and low turnout is a black eye on our democracy.