Voter ID a Misguided Effort

December 13, 2010

As many state legislatures prepare to convene in January, lawmakers across the country – especially the newly elected – are preparing to roll back voting rights.  For some, voter ID is the top priority, reflected in pre-filed bills this past month.  This is puzzling considering the great number of pressing problems facing the states and the fact that there is little evidence the kind of voter fraud targeted by ID laws is a significant issue. 

The Brennan Center has researched the impact of voter identification legislation and the frequency of the only type of voter fraud that voter ID bills have the potential to address: the impersonation of registered voters at the polls.  Our research has established that impersonation fraud rarely occurs.  Indeed, more Americans are struck by lightning each year.  But while there is no credible evidence that impersonation fraud occurs, reliable evidence proves that photo ID and proof of citizenship bills erect hurdles that prevent real citizens from voting.  The citizens affected are predominantly elderly and indigent voters, and citizens from minority communities.

Still, the legislative fixation on voter ID remains.

Voter ID bills have been pre-filed in Missouri (including a separate bill with a focus on proof of citizenship, which is certainly more onerous), Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Texas. Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle was so eager that she dramatically camped out inside the Capitol to be first in line to file voter ID legislation.

And in states with no current pre-filed voter ID bills, prepare yourself for the upcoming legislative avalanche. 

Secretaries of State-elect Matt Schultz (Iowa), Scott Gessler (Colorado), Dianna Duran (New Mexico), and Kris Kobach (Kansas) all made voter ID a big issue in their campaigns.  And all have publicly stated that they will lobby their respective legislatures to pass voter ID, and in the case of Secretaries-elect Gessler and Kobach, proof of citizenship requirements for voting as well.  According to other media reports, lawmakers in North Carolina, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are set to introduce respective voter ID bills this January. 

This focus on voter ID is unfortunate considering how much work is needed to modernize our voter registration systemExperts, legislators and election officials across the country agree that our voter registration system is flawed and outdated.  As Brennan Center research has demonstrated, lawmakers and election leaders can improve election integrity and security without compromising the right to vote as they move to modernize their systems.  Modernization saves millions of dollars a year, boosts registration rates, and increases the accuracy of the rolls.  Because the system is much more accurate and because most voter registrations come in through direct contact with government officials, a modern voter registration system is also much more secure and reduces the opportunities for fraud and abuse – not only at the polls but throughout the system.  In other words, those concerned about fraud should follow the lead of pioneering state officials, like those in Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, and Washington, and work to upgrade our ailing voter registration system.

And there is promising news.  In this sea of restrictive measures, The Houston Chronicle reports that Houston State Senator Rodney Ellis has pre-filed six bills which make up the "Voter Empowerment Package" (Senate Bills 210 to 216).  The package includes measures to 1) designate every statewide Election Day as a state holiday, including primary Election Day; 2) allows eligible residents to register for voting during the early voting period at polling locations as long as the eligible resident provides certain documentation; 3) creates criminal penalties for certain deceptive or disenfranchising practices regarding an election; 4) allows eligible residents to register for voting on Election Day at polling locations as long as the eligible resident provides certain documentation; and 5) authorizes registered voters to vote by mail during the early voting period.

In Montana, a pre-filed bill would establish online voter registration in the state, which has proven incredibly successful in many other states.

In New York, lawmakers announced that they plan to introduce legislation to modernize the voter registration system.

These bills demonstrate the right kind of reform that is needed for our patchwork of state registration systems. 

But as long some remain fixated on voter ID, they must be prepared demonstrate the requirements are worth the harms they cause—a tough task given the lack of evidence of fraud, as Colorado Common Cause Executive Director Jenny Flanagan to wrote the Denver Post on November 25.  Legislators should also be prepared to carry the financial burdens of implementing voter identifications laws that meet constitutional requirements.  For if voter ID is to be implemented, states will have to provide ID cards free of charge to those who cannot afford them, to make sure that those cards are widely available, to undertake mass outreach and public education programs on the new requirements, and to include fail-safes and exceptions for certain categories of voters.  This adds up to a lot of money—at a time when state budgets are strained. 

State officials have a choice: they can improve election integrity, register more voters, and save money by modernizing their voter registration systems or they can push forward with restrictive voter ID requirements that will stress state budgets and contract the franchise.  The common sense answer is rather clear.  We certainly hope they choose the former and will be happy to work with them on such important reform.