November 27, 2005
Here is an idea for a new law: Lets establish a procedure that will exclude hundreds of thousands of eligible voters from our democracy.
If those citizens want to vote, lets make them take time off work several months before an election, travel to distant offices, wait in long lines and pay a poll tax. Many wont be able to afford the tax, and many others will be required to go through this process more than once.
If we pass this law, we might be able to reduce a rare form of voter fraud below its current rate of 0.0004 percent.
This is a pitch that you will probably never hear from those who are calling on Alabama to adopt a law that would prevent eligible citizens from voting unless they present state-issued photo identification. But it is an honest description of what a voter ID law will do.
Many Americans do not immediately think of photo ID requirements as imposing unfair costs on voters. That is because most of us have photo IDs that we use for a variety of day-to-day activities and could easily show those IDs at the polls.
However voting is not only for most of us—it is for all of us. This is a cardinal American value.
The problem is that approximately 10 percent of voting-age citizens do not have any state-issued photo IDs, let alone IDs bearing their current address.
In Alabama, this could translate into more than 350,000 eligible voters who would be barred from the polls if a photo ID requirement were enacted.
When you factor in that the proof of citizenship soon to be required in order to obtain a state-issued ID, the numbers become even worse.
Arizonas largest county was forced to reject almost 75 percent of voter registration applications this year because the voters did not provide the proof of citizenship now required in that state. Most of these people were in fact citizens. These laws are hurting eligible voters.
Supporters of voter ID laws often gloss over the expense of photo IDs for those Americans—largely the elderly, the poor, people with disabilities, and people of color—who do not already have them. In Alabama, a drivers or a non-drivers ID card costs $23.
And the costs of the card itself are just the beginning.
Federal law will soon require all ID applicants to provide documented proof of citizenship—something that many Americans do not now have. A certified copy of a birth certificate costs $12 in Alabama and up to $45 in other states; a passport costs $97; and naturalization papers cost more than $200.
The time and hassle of getting an ID also costs money, due to transportation costs and time off work. This amounts to a modern poll tax for those Alabamans without photo IDs. This is unacceptable more than 40 years after the Constitution abolished poll taxes and other financial barriers to voting.
Photo ID laws not only violate the fundamental values of American democracy, they also make no sense. They exclude thousands of eligible voters without meaningfully improving the integrity of elections.
And since Alabama already has an identification requirement—one that also accepts non-photo identity documents—there is even less reason to consider an additional burden at the polls.
Although photo ID laws are touted as a measure to combat voter fraud, they do no such thing. They do not prevent ballot stuffing, absentee ballot fraud, vote suppression or official misconduct. They only guard against one type of fraud that is extraordinarily rare and risky—impersonating a registered voter at the polls.
The recent National Commission on Election Reform found that there is no evidence that this kind of fraud is at all prevalent in the U.S., and studies confirm that its incidence is negligible. Since this type of voter fraud could lead to five years in prison, and since an individual voter has little to gain from it, it is no wonder that it almost never happens.
Statistically, Americans are more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than to commit this type of fraud.
Even if a photo ID requirement would not affect your ability to vote, it will pose a threat to others and to our democracy. Voting is a right for all citizens—even those who dont drive. Alabamans must not accept the senseless disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens to prevent a problem that does not exist.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
D’Linell Finley is an assistant professor of political science and public administration for Auburn University-Montgomery and an ordained minister and pastor. Wendy Weiser is associate counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.