Last Tuesday, September 25th, the United States Supreme Court agreed to consider a case on voter ID laws. The case, appealed in the seventh circuit court, requires registered voters in the state of Indiana to provide a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Proponents of the law will tell you that photo IDs are necessary to combat voter fraud, which is pervasive and insidious. They will readily speak about "illegal immigrants" who are inundating our polling places and casting illegitimate votes without providing any identification. They will also just say that there is no good reason why someone should not have photo identification; after all, you need one to drive a car, fly on an airplane, cash a check, or even to rent a movie.
What proponents of the bill will not tell you is that, shocking as it may seem, not all Americans drive cars, fly on planes, or even go to Blockbuster. The actual evidence of this "rampant" voter fraud is minimal. Arizona, where voter ID laws were implemented in November of 2006, has 2.7 million registered voters, "238 [of whom] were believed to have been non-citizens in the last 10 years" according to Joyce Purnick in a Sept. 26, 2006 article in The New York Times. On top of this, any undocumented immigrant who is foolish enough to try to vote illegally will likely receive incarceration if not deportation for such actions -- risks that are clearly not worth the reward.
In its attempt to cordon the throng of illegal immigrant phantom voters, voter ID laws sacrifice the poor, the elderly, the young, and many minorities as collateral damage. The bill is tantamount to a modern day "poll-tax," that forces many eligible voters to pay for a government-issued photo ID. Furthermore, proof of citizenship often comes in the form of a birth certificate, another document unobtainable or even nonexistent for many people born outside of hospitals. Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan estimates that in her state alone, some 200,000 eligible voters do not possess driver's licenses or any similar forms of photo identification. Many senior citizens have let their driver's licenses expire and many young people have not yet applied for them, while poor citizens often cannot afford to drive cars or purchase state approved IDs and passports.
Requiring photo IDs also increases confusion for election administrators. In a hearing held by the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) this past July, several college students testified about the inability to prove domicile in their college districts merely because their photo ID was from a different part of the state or another state entirely. Photo ID laws can therefore prevent out-of-state college students from registering in the district where they attend school. Were this the case ubiquitous, nearly all young voters would be forced to vote absentee, making the registration process more bureaucratic, time-consuming, and cumbersome.
Voter ID laws also seem paradoxical after the House and Senate overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act of 1965 two summers ago, prohibiting state and local governments from establishing laws or policies that would have a discriminatory effect on the ability of certain groups to vote. In a nation where voter participation is already extremely low -- 48.3 percent (in average since 1945) according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance‹our laws should attempt to augment turnout rather than disenfranchise legal citizens. One could argue that voter ID laws are more about partisan politics than cleaning up elections, as they primarily affect demographics that suggest a particular party affiliation.
Most disturbingly, voter ID laws hardly scratch the surface for legitimate solutions pertaining to voter fraud. As the 2004 election indicated, electronic voting glitches, machine malfunctioning, absence of paper trails, excessively long lines and voter intimidation are the actual threats to our democracy.
With that said, if there is anyone culpable of fraud, it is the highly partisan election administrators who instate draconian registration rules, improperly purge voting lists, unevenly distribute voting machines and unlawfully deny provisional ballots to certain citizens. It is imperative that our judicial system address the actual failures in our voting systems and decide in the favor of an accessible democracy when considering this discriminatory law.
Matthew Segal is the founding executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) and the National Democracy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institution -- the nation's first student think-tank. He can be reached at Matthew.Segal@savevoting.org
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