APRIL 2, 2012
Can I See Some ID?
What's behind all the new state voter ID laws and what effect will they have on the 2012 election?
PATRICIA SMITH | THE NEW YORK TIMES UPFRONT
Huey Fischer, a sophomore at the University of Texas, has every intention of voting in the presidential election this November. But Texas's new voter ID law—if it withstands a federal challenge—will make it more complicated than he expected.
The law requires voters to show a government-issued photo ID—like a driver's license or passport—that matches the address on voter registration rolls. That makes it harder to vote not only for out-of-state students, but also for Texas students with driver's licenses from their hometowns.
"It's a huge deal," says Fischer, 19, who's from Rockport on the Gulf Coast, a four-hour drive from Austin, where he goes to school.
Texas is one of 14 states that have passed laws requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot. And this year, legislatures in 27 states are considering voter ID laws, including 13 states that currently have no voter ID requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"The trend started a few years ago, but really accelerated in 2011 in anticipation of the 2012 election," says Richard Hasen, a professor of law and politics at the University of California, Irvine.
Republicans, who control most of the state governments enacting the new laws, say the rules are necessary to prevent voter fraud, and question why photo ID should be routinely required at airports but not at polling sites.
'Rollback in Voting Rights'?
Democrats counter that the new laws are a solution in search of a problem, since voter fraud—particularly voter impersonation, which is what IDs aim to prevent—is rare. They worry that the laws will discourage, or even block, eligible voters.
An estimated 21 million Americans—many of them poor, elderly, black, or Hispanic—don't have government ID cards. And many of them tend to vote Democratic. Previously, voters were often able to use other forms of identification, like student IDs, bank statements, utility bills, and Social Security cards.
A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law concludes that the new laws "could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012."
Just how much impact the laws will have is a question. Republicans note that since Georgia and Indiana passed laws several years ago requiring voters to have photo IDs, voter turnout in those states has actually improved.
Civil rights groups worry that the ID requirements will disproportionately prevent minorities from voting.
"These ID laws are another form of a poll tax," Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a longtime civil rights leader, told the House recently.
The 15th Amendment gave blacks* the right to vote in 1870, but across the South, poll taxes, literacy tests, and widespread intimidation prevented most from voting until the civil rights movement. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned those practices and required that the Justice Department approve all new voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls.
In December, the Justice Department blocked a new South Carolina voter ID law, saying it would disproportionately suppress turnout among eligible minority voters. In March, it blocked the Texas voter ID law for the same reason. Both states are challenging these decisions.
Attorney General Eric Holder called on both political parties to "resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success."
The other group that voter ID laws could affect is college students, like Huey Fischer. The Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that college students have the right to vote in the state in which they are attending school, even if they are from another state. But many of the new voter ID laws seem designed to make that more difficult, and courts are divided on their constitutionality.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter identification law, saying it found no evidence that new requirements were a burden on voters. But in Wisconsin, a federal judge ruled last month that the state's new voter ID law, was unconstitutional because it would have denied the right to vote to eligible voters who lack ID.
'Basic Steps' to Prevent Fraud
Proponents of stricter voter ID laws say such rules make sense. Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation says it's true that there hasn't been a massive amount of fraud in U.S. elections.
"But," he adds, "there are enough proven cases in the past, throughout our history and recently, that show that you've got to take basic steps to prevent people from taking advantage of an election if they want to. Particularly close elections." The jostling ahead of the 2012 election cycle comes against the backdrop of the 2008 election, when a huge turnout of young and minority voters helped propel Barack Obama to victory. In the 2010 election, when voting by young people and minorities dropped off and enthusiasm among conservative groups surged, Republicans won sweeping victories. It's clear to Democrats that to win a second term, President Obama will again need high turnout among young and minority voters.
"These laws could certainly have an effect at the margins in a close race," says Hasen of UC Irvine. "And the next presidential election is supposed to be very close."