By CEDRIC HERRING
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.