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Sadly, Social Security Cards Won't Cut It for Many Voters

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At the recent Civil Rights Summit at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library at the University of Texas in Austin, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, civil rights pioneer Andrew Young called for adding photos to Social Security Cards as a way to put valid voter IDs in the hands of more people. President Bill Clinton, also in attendance, appeared to endorse the idea as well. Unfortunately, the most restrictive voter ID laws are carefully crafted to prevent the federal government from expanding the list of acceptable IDs in this way. This is one of the many ways in which strict voter ID laws present a direct affront to the federal mandate to protect the right to vote, regardless of state legislative whims.

Adding a photo to Social Security Cards would satisfy the voter ID requirement in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia, but it would not fix the problem in Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina where the laws are more narrowly drawn. The voter ID laws in these states specifically enumerate what IDs qualify and do not open-endedly embrace any photo ID issued by the federal government. In Wisconsin, even a Veterans Identification Card (VIC) issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which already bears a photo, is not accepted as valid voter ID. A Social Security Card with a photo would also potentially not satisfy Pennsylvania and Indiana's laws because while it contains an issuance date, there is no expiration date. Exceptions have been made for military IDs of indefinite duration, but the fate of photo Social Security Cards would be at the mercy of state lawyers and potentially the courts. The new Social Security Card would also potentially not qualify in Kansas, unless it could be deemed a government-issued public assistance card.

Generally speaking, since the implementation of REAL ID requirements nationwide, Social Security Cards satisfy just one of the documentary proof requirements for a driver's license or state ID application at a DMV office -- typically, proof of identity. An applicant still needs to show proof of citizenship or legal presence, proof of name and date of birth, and proof of residency. Many of the most draconian photo ID laws expressly enumerate what IDs fit the bill and were drafted to frustrate other governmental entities' attempts to add new forms to the list. The idea after all is not to ensure a broad spectrum of secure and valid IDs, but to make it more difficult to obtain identification to vote.

The Social Security Card application is not much more lenient than the driver's license or state ID card application. Applicants for an original Social Security Card must present proof of citizenship, which may be a U.S. birth certificate or a U.S. passport, and applicants for a replacement card must only prove citizenship if they were born outside the U.S. Even that limited flexibility on citizenship proof may not satisfy states such as Kansas, Arizona, and Alabama that require proof of citizenship for voter registration, and it seems probable that many of the states with narrowly tailored voter ID laws would amend those laws to exclude a photographic Social Security Card.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution here, and litigation is proceeding to block these laws on a case-by-case basis. The impact of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the country -- in Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina -- would be wholly unchanged by modifying the Social Security Card. Therefore, while this proposal might provide some relief, it does not address the root of the problem -- state legislatures that are moving toward limiting the vote -- the opposite of what we strove to do as a nation 50 years ago.