IGPA: Are voter identification laws good policy?

IGPA: Are voter identification laws good policy?


Nothing is more fundamental to American democracy than the right to vote. Because the franchise is so central to representative democracy, some lawmakers argue that we must protect the integrity of the electoral process by guarding against voter fraud.

To do this, they have proposed and passed legislation requiring would-be voters to bring some form of state-recognized identification to their polling place on Election Day.

The first so-called voter ID laws were passed in 2003, and 30 states currently require some form of voter identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. One such law, passed in South Carolina, is currently being tested in federal court after the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the law from taking effect, arguing it unfairly discriminates against black voters. Legislation to create such a law has been introduced in Illinois but has not advanced past the committee level.

Opponents of voter ID laws argue that they unnecessarily restrict the pool of eligible voters and make it harder for citizens to cast their ballots. They claim that these laws disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans, Latinos, the poor, students, the elderly and the disabled, and pose unreasonable barriers that prevent these citizens from exercising their most fundamental constitutional right. Detractors also maintain that voter ID laws are reminiscent of such unconstitutional practices as poll taxes, and that they represent backward steps in the long struggle to end voter discrimination in this country.

How effective are voter ID laws at preventing voter fraud? On the surface, voter ID laws are effective mechanisms to deter fraud in elections and to protect the sanctity of the franchise; however, critics argue that these are really present-day voter suppression laws. Moreover, opponents say that such laws are part of a larger set of tactics that include systematic purging of voter rolls in high-minority areas, elimination of same-day registration, reductions in early voting periods and absentee voting opportunities, and new restrictions on voter registration drives.

Do voter ID laws reduce fraud in elections as proponents suggest, or do they do more harm than good by wrongfully denying the right to vote, especially to people of color, the young, the old and the disabled? Voter fraud is any election-related activity that corrupts the process of "obtaining and marking of ballots, the counting and certification of election results or the registration of voters," according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2002, the Justice Department instituted the Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative and promised to aggressively prosecute accusations of voter fraud. Yet, between 2002 and 2005, there were only 26 substantiated cases of voter fraud in the entire nation. Indeed, voter fraud is an extraordinarily rare occurrence.

What are the consequences of voter ID laws for access to voting? Research suggests that 11 percent of U.S. citizens — more than 21 million Americans — do not have government-issued photo identifications. But among particular groups, the percentage lacking acceptable documentation is even higher. For example, among African-Americans, 25 percent of voting-age citizens lack government-issued documents. This compares with 8 percent of voting-age whites. More generally, such voter ID laws disproportionately screen out voters who are low-income and minority and who are significantly less likely to have the necessary identification documents. In lieu of driver's licenses, some states find documents such as birth certificates and passports acceptable, but providing such documentation provides a special hardship to some subgroups. It also opens up the possibility that a disproportionate number of voters from certain backgrounds will be asked to provide identification.

Not surprisingly, voter ID laws are associated with lower voter turnout in those states that have recently enacted them. It is estimated that, net of other factors, such laws reduce overall turnout by more than 2 percent. It also is not surprising that attitudes about voter ID laws are partisan. According to a recent Fox News poll, 47 percent of Democrats believe "the supporters of voter identification laws are really trying to steal elections by decreasing legal votes from minorities." In contrast, seven in 10 Republicans believe that "opponents of voter identification laws are really trying to steal elections by increasing illegal votes by noncitizens and other ineligible voters." Moreover, every state that has passed stricter voter ID laws has done so under a Republican-controlled legislature.

Currently, Illinois is not among the 30 states with a voter ID law. But as voter ID legislation continues to spread across the nation, it is likely that the issue will soon be before Illinois legislators. Both proponents and opponents will likely claim that they just want to protect citizens and their right to vote. Both sides will just want to let the (right) people vote.

Any opinions expressed are those of the author. Cedric Herring is amember of the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in labor policies and racial discrimination issues.

About On the Issues: For more than 65 years, the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) has conducted nonpartisan research on our nation's toughest policy challenges. IGPA experts have devoted their careers to studying the complicated issues behind the questions that are often on voters' minds. Learn more at http://igpa.uillinois.edu/ontheissues.

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murphsmom wrote on October 02, 2012 at 10:10 am

Try to do anything else without a photo ID,  we have to start somewhere.  Please let Illinois

be first for a good cause for a change.

serf wrote on October 02, 2012 at 11:10 am

Why do we have to start somewhere?  

Let me suggest you read up on your history a bit.  Google 'voter suppression' and/or 'jim crow laws' to refresh your recollection about what we've done as a nation in the past.

Voting shouldn't be hard.  It should be easy.  Putting barriers in the way to solve a non-existent problem is not American.

In person voter fraud is as almost as mythical as unicorns.  You have a far greater likelihood of being struck by lightning than finding someone committing in person voter fraud.  

americanproud wrote on October 02, 2012 at 11:10 am

Mr. Herring's assertion that voter ID laws equal voter suppression is both ridiculous and untrue.  There is no one in this country who doesn't have some form of legal identification.  The first is one that goes into effect at birth.  It's called the birth certificate.  Don't try to convince intelligent Americans that a U.S. citizen has difficulty obtaining a form of identification.  According to a new report by CNN (http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/21/opinion/spalding-welfare-state-dependency/...), there 49% of Americans on some sort of government assistance.  There is no way they could receive assistance, whether it's food stamps, section 8, Medicare, Medicaid, social security, WIC, college scholarships, or anything else taxpayer-funded without proving they are the person on the application.  Why not require identification at the voting booth?  Unless a person has something to hide, there should be no reason why he/she wouldn't want to show that they are who they say they are. 

serf wrote on October 02, 2012 at 12:10 pm

There is no one in this country who doesn't have some form of legal identification.  

Wrong.  Here, let me help you




americanproud wrote on October 02, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Bill Moyers is a communist.  Anything that comes out of his mouth I take with a grain of salt.

serf wrote on October 02, 2012 at 6:10 pm

LOL.  Okay, don't let facts get in the way.


Let me put it this way.  Voting is a fundamental right in this country.  If we are going to restrict that right in any way, we better have a good gol-durned reason for doing it.  Again, let me reiterate my previous point:


It's a myth perpetrated by a group of people who have an agenda.  That agenda is to make it harder for certain demographic groups to vote.  That's the only reason.  They're not even being quiet about it anymore:




Mark Taylor wrote on October 02, 2012 at 6:10 pm

That's dingdang right. I can spot those communisticals a mile away and when I do, I don't listen to a thing they say. One told me my tire was flat once -- I could tell he was a commie by the way he parted his hair. He said I had a flat tire but I drove the rest of the way to Denver without even bothering to check cause I knew he was just a lying communistic and wanted to distract me from something. Well, it turns out I mysteriously got a flat once I reached Denver, but I know I didn't have it before when he told me about it.

You can tell 'Serf,' if that is his real name is also a communistic, so you can just ignore all these 'facts' and 'reality' he's dropping.

serf wrote on October 02, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Dammit.  I've been made.

Mark Taylor wrote on October 03, 2012 at 1:10 am

I can tell by the way you spell your name.

jlc wrote on October 02, 2012 at 12:10 pm

You should read the article you cited, treetops. That's 49% of *households* that have at least one person on government assistance. Not 49% of the population.

And here are some more examples of people who apparently have something to hide, according to you, like veterans and married women: http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/local/state/air-force-veteran-testif...

ranch-hand wrote on October 02, 2012 at 1:10 pm
Profile Picture

If Illinois does not have an  ID to vote law then why was I required to present an ID before I was allowed to vote an absentee ballot yesterday??????

JimmyB wrote on October 02, 2012 at 2:10 pm

You have to show an ID to:


Purchase cigarettes

Purchase alcohol

To open a bank account

To apply for public assistance

The list goes on and on


Why not to vote???????

I just don’t buy the argument that it stops the old & poor from voting, because they don’t have ID’s.

 Seems to me the ones who are against the ID Voting laws are the ones with something to hide!



rsp wrote on October 02, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Okay JimmyB, explain this one for me. The only existing birth certificate for my father and for  many other people was in a court house in southern Illinois. It went up in flames. This is not the only instance where this has happened. What do you suggest all of those people use for a birth certificate?

EL YATIRI wrote on October 02, 2012 at 4:10 pm
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I would like to see a national ID to be shown anytime one's identity needs to be ascertained.

Those who have difficulty obtaining one can be assisted.

This whole controversy is due to politiking one side seeking an unfair advantage over the other.

Republicans want it because their perception is that it will give them an advantage.  Democrats have the same motivation in opposingl.  I'll bet their positions on the controversy would immediately flip flop if they thought the reverse would give them an advantage.

EL YATIRI wrote on October 02, 2012 at 5:10 pm
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Pennsylvania voter ID law struck down by a judge.   I guess now it will be about who can get more activist judges appointed.  By activist I include those appointed by Republicans who are just activist in their rulings as the dem appointed ones.

americanproud wrote on October 02, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Okay, so I've gotta hand it to Mark and Serf.  I will actually admit that Mark is very funny and can sometimes (not often, but sometimes) make me look at things from a different perspective.  I'm throwing in the towel for now on the voter ID debate.  I'm too tired to stay in and debate it.  I'm not saying you're right and I'm wrong.  I'm saying I've decided to be neutral.  For now. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on October 02, 2012 at 10:10 pm

I have a photo I.D.; but no one ever asks to see it.  I don't even get carded for buying beer anymore.

I do believe that a national photo I.D. is a good idea.  Instead of every state issuing driver's licenses; a national I.D. could serve that purpose, and other purposes.  We have passed the concept of individual states due to population mobility.  One national individual idenity card could possess all of the necessary information.  It would save time; and cut down on idenity errors.

Mark Taylor wrote on October 03, 2012 at 4:10 pm


Mark Taylor wrote on October 03, 2012 at 1:10 am

I look forward to agreeing with you in the future...

Mark Taylor wrote on October 03, 2012 at 4:10 pm


Sid Saltfork wrote on October 08, 2012 at 8:10 pm

What are EL YATARI's views?  Did he go on vacation?  Speak up EL YATARI if you are still out there.  Make a comment to give some of us faith that you are still verbal.

Mark Taylor wrote on October 08, 2012 at 11:10 pm

El Yatari...?