Voter ID & The Divide

March 17, 2009

Countless pundits have suggested that the last two months have derailed President Obama’s plans to lead the country into a post-partisan era, but whether or not bipartisanship ever comes to Washington, D.C., one thing’s for certain: when it comes to the state legislatures, don’t hold your breath waiting for the demise of partisan politics—especially when it comes to election issues the parties think they can exploit to political advantage. That lesson’s been proved again and again over the last few weeks as state legislators across the country have debated strict voter identification laws.

In an op-ed piece they contributed to the New York Times last year, Jimmy Carter and James Baker summed up the partisan divide over requiring voters to present photo ID before voting:

Supporters of this policy argue that . . . election fraud will be reduced. Opponents . . . fear it will disenfranchise voters, especially the poor, members of minority groups and the elderly . . . . The debate is polarized because most of the proponents are Republicans and most of the opponents are Democrats.

Across the country, the parties are following this script closely, with Republican lawmakers pulling out all the stops to enact strict voter ID rules, and Democrats digging in to prevent disenfranchisement of poor, elderly and minority voters.

Last month, for example, GOP lawmakers in the South Carolina House passed a photo ID bill over angry resistance from their Democratic colleagues; the Democrats stormed out of the session in protest. In Tennessee, the Republican sponsor of a photo ID bill brushed aside a chorus of voices explaining that it was wholly unnecessary, and went so far as to claim the bill would actually increase voter turn-out. And in Mississippi, Republicans fought so hard for a punitive voter ID bill that they actually killed a compromise proposal to require photo ID because it wasn’t strict enough—and would have permitted such voter-friendly policies as early voting.

The latest chapter in the voter ID saga is unfolding in Austin, where the members of the Texas Senate are expected to approve a voter ID bill today—on a strictly party line vote—and pass it to the House. Its fate in the House is slightly less certain because Republicans hold only a slim advantage, but it’s likely to eventually pass the House and end up on the desk of Governor Rick Perry.

That’s unfortunate. As we testified before the Texas Senate last week, Texas has had no problem with the only form of voter fraud that a voter ID bill can possibly address: impersonation of a registered voter at the polling place. The problem of impersonation fraud has been definitively debunked, and the theoretical possibility that such fraud could happen is simply not sufficient to justify a bill that will make it difficult or impossible for some poor, elderly and minority voters to vote. So it’s a wonder that GOP senators in Texas insist on devoting so much time and energy—including an all-night session that lasted nearly 24 hours—on a “solution” in search of a problem. Instead, they could be tackling the real problems facing Texans, like education, health care, and rising home foreclosures.

But even if Texas lawmakers decided to ignore all these pressing economic problems and concentrate on reforming the elections system, focusing on voter ID still wouldn’t make sense. There hasn’t been a single proven case of impersonation fraud in Texas, despite the fact that Attorney General Greg Abbott spent $1.4 million over two years looking for it. (The same is true nationwide: in 5 years of a stepped-up effort to root out voter fraud, the Bush administration’s Department of Justice didn’t secure a single conviction for impersonation fraud.) Impersonation fraud is no more than a politically popular straw man, but real problems with the elections system actually do persist—and they are costing millions of Americans the right to vote.

That’s the bottom line conclusion of a report by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which was presented in testimony before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee last week by Professor Stephen Ansolabehere of M.I.T. and Harvard. The CCES Study concluded that, in spite of the historically high turnout in the 2008 election, 79 million eligible Americans did not vote (as compared with 133 million who did). Significantly, the study concluded that an alarmingly high number of the eligible voters who didn’t cast ballots didn’t fail to do so simply because of apathy. To the contrary: the study determined that 2 to 3 million voters were prevented from voting because of registration problems, and another 2 to 4 million were discouraged from voting because of administrative problems. On top of that, another 9 million couldn’t cast valid ballots because residency rules or registration deadlines prevented them from doing so.

As Jonah Goldman of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law testified, problems with the process of voter registration prevent more eligible citizens from voting than any other phase of the election administration process.

The administrative hurdles associated with voter registration cannot be justified in the twenty-first century—not when they cost millions of eligible American citizens the right to vote, and have been easily addressed by every other advanced democracy in the world. As the Rules Committee’s Chair, Senator Charles Schumer, put it, “In the 21st century people shouldn’t be denied their constitutional right to vote because of problems caused by an antiquated voter registration system that was set up in the 19th century by the Whig Party.”

Modernizing our system of voter registration system is readily achievable, as the Brennan Center’s proposal for Voter Registration Modernization makes clear. A modern registration system will create voter rolls that are as comprehensive as possible well in advance of Election Day and provide a fail-safe mechanism if an eligible voter shows up at the polls and isn’t found on the rolls. Such a system is routine in other countries, and because of various legal and technological developments, it is now achievable here.

If state lawmakers want to address the real problems with our elections systems, they should concentrate on modernizing our outdated system of voter registration, not spending precious legislative resources debating voter ID policies that disenfranchise vulnerable citizens—and do nothing to stop fraud.

The only reason lawmakers can have for fighting about voter ID when real problems are costing millions of Americans the right to vote is because they like having voter ID around as a politically divisive “ wedge issue” they can exploit to partisan advantage.

That’s no justification at all.