Voter ID: Less Than Meets the Eye

Voter ID: Less Than Meets the Eye

By Lou Cannon - August 17, 2012

Pennsylvania's voter identification law, one of the nation's strictest, was upheld this week by a state court, triggering predictable exchanges between Republicans who say such measures are needed to prevent fraud and Democrats who claim they suppress the votes of minorities and the poor.

Rob Gleason, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, praised Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson for the “courage and conviction of his ruling.” Jay Costa, the Democratic minority leader in the state Senate, called the decision “disturbing and disconcerting.” Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, said she was “dismayed with the decision of the court.”

The Pennsylvania ruling was the latest in a series of fierce battles over laws requiring photo identification to vote. Thirty-three states have voter-ID laws. Eleven were passed during the past two years, mostly on party-line votes in states where Republicans won legislative majorities in the 2010 elections.

Jennie Bowser of the National Conference of State Legislatures classifies nine of the measures as “strict photo ID laws,” meaning that prospective voters who show up at the polls without required identification have little recourse. They can cast a provisional ballot, but it won’t count unless they make a subsequent visit to the elections office with the required identification.

Five states will use these strict laws in November: Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Two state judges have blocked Wisconsin’s law. Laws in Texas and South Carolina were denied pre-clearance by the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act and are awaiting action by a D.C. federal court. A Mississippi law is in the early stages of pre-clearance.

The rhetoric on both sides has often been fanciful.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has compared strict photo-ID laws to the poll taxes once routinely used by Southern states to suppress the vote of African-Americans. The liberal Brennan Center for Justice at New York University recently claimed that 11 percent of voting-age citizens in the states with photo-ID laws lack proper identification.

Defenders of strict voter-ID laws meanwhile say they are needed to prevent fraud even when acknowledging that no fraud exists. Pennsylvania officials, for instance, conceded before the hearing upholding the state’s law that they knew of no instance of voter impersonation.

One expert, whose job prevents him from speaking on the record, said both sides were making “demagogic” arguments of little merit to rally their political bases. The evidence would appear to bear him out.

The Indiana law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and in place for the 2008 elections, as was the Georgia law. Democratic turnout surged in both states. Democrats say this reflected enthusiasm for Barack Obama, which is true but beside the point. The argument against strict photo-ID laws is that significant numbers of people who want to vote can’t obtain the required identification. If that were so, the Democratic vote should have increased less in Indiana and Georgia than in states without such laws. In fact, it was comparable.

On the other hand, the Republican call for strict photo-ID laws to prevent fraud is a solution to a non-existent problem. News21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative reporting project, analyzed 2,068 alleged fraud cases in all 50 states since 2000 and found only 10 cases of voter impersonation -- about one for every 15 million prospective voters. But the analysis found 491 cases of alleged absentee ballot fraud and 400 cases of alleged registration fraud, none of which existing voter-ID laws would affect.

So while states are preventing fraud that doesn’t exist, they may be ignoring the fraud that’s actually occurring. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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