Voter ID laws will in fact prevent more legitimate votes than fraudulent votes — by several orders of magnitudes. Identification is harder to get than you think in your comfortable home. Identification doesn’t prevent any kind of election fraud that is common. Voter ID laws use your belief in fairness to suppress legitimate voters.
There’s Almost Fraud That an ID Would Prevent
In five years, only 86 people have been convicted of some form of voter fraud, mostly mistaken registration — the “fraud” being that the registrant didn’t understand they weren’t eligible to vote. The rest were a couple cases of voting twice and vote-buying schemes. Voter identification does nothing to stop these kind of fraud. The only kind of fraud that an identification card can prevent is someone voting as someone else. But the risk of getting caught are huge — what if the actual voter has already voted? What happens when they try to vote and find they’ve already voted? Considering most voter fraud is a felony (often federal), how would someone trying to sway an election find enough people willing to risk this? If you wanted to change the outcome of an election, you wouldn’t do it by using our “lack” of voter ID requirements to vote fraudulently. You’d attack electronic voting machines; you’d pay for a misleading robo-call to voters telling them to the wrong precinct to vote in (or day — both of these have happened); in small elections, you’d make sure your people count the vote. You would not pay a bunch of people to go pretend to be registered voters.
There Are More People Without ID Than You Think
Elevent percent of eligible voters don’t have state-issued photo identification that would allow them to vote under several states’ voter ID laws. Many also don’t have ID valid even under less stringent non-photo requirements. Many of them are poor. Many are elderly who have never had to have ID. Many are minorities.
Until a few months ago, I was one of them despite not being poor, elderly or a minority! I had a California drivers license still which I’d had for years, but I hadn’t yet bothered to get a Washington one. If Washington required ID to vote (it doesn’t as we vote by mail), then I wouldn’t have been able to vote.
It’s Harder To Get ID Than You Think
If you have a good-paying job with the ability to take a few hours off (or you don’t work during normal business hours), then you might think getting an ID is easy. But not everyone is you. Even people who you might think it easy to get ID have a hard time. I’m going to start with my situation a couple years ago, and then add on a few very common complexities.
When I moved to Washington, I didn’t immediately get a Washington drivers license to replace mine from California. I didn’t really need it and when I looked at the requirements, I was blocked by one: I needed proof of residence. That should be easy, right? But, it wasn’t, not even for me. The list of allowed proof has since changed, but at the time the following didn’t count: a rental lease agreemment (no really!) which I didn’t have anyway because I moved in with my boyfriend; a cell phone bill (power or water bills counted, but I didn’t have these in my name as they were in the landlord’s); or a pay stub (doesn’t prove you actually live in the state).
But really, that’s not much of a barrier. I bought a house not too long after and then I had all the residency proof I needed (at this point the rules changed and I didn’t need it anymore). But what about someone who always lives with roommates and never has bills in his name? But let’s pretend we’ve got proof of state residency.
What else might I need to get a state ID? In most states you need some proof of citizenship or legal residence in the country (I usee a passport now — something only a minority of Americans have). When I got licenses in Arizona and California I had to show something that proved by place of birth. That’s usually a certified copy of a birth certificate, which until I was eighteen I didn’t have a copy of! We had an old photocopy, but it wasn’t official. I had to write to the county where I was born (and pay money) to have some certified copies made.
Now imagine I didn’t actually know what county I was born in. This isn’t crazy. If your parents died when you were young (or had to give you up for various reasons including crime, drug abuse or neglect), you might not know. Maybe you do know, but can’t afford to pay for copies. Or can’t afford whatever requirement that county has to get certified copies — the county I was born in required a copy of state-issued photo ID (!) to prove I had a right to my birth certificate or an affadavit from someone else that I was who I said I was. I don’t recall how we got around that one, but I had plenty of time and money to manage it. I asked for several copies though so I wouldn’t have to go thru the process again!
Okay, so now we have proof of residence and proof of citizenship (or legal status). How do we get the actual ID? You go into an office. That was easy for me: I just took the bus downtown before work (I can basically come in whenever I like). What if I have a job that isn’t so lenient? What if that job uses up most or all of my time during DMV business hours? What if I don’t have flex time or even much paid time off? Worse, what if I live an hour or more away (by whatever transportation available to me)? What if I live hours a way in a rural location? What if the extended family only has a couple cars to go into town and no one can lend you one for the day trip it takes to go to the DMV? I guess you’re not voting if your state requires state ID!
I really recommend thinking about how you got your last ID. Then consider what you would have done if you were less fortunate in any particular. You might say voting is so important you would take time off (unpaid) or risk getting fired to register to vote. I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation.
Voter ID Laws Will Prevent Legitimate Votes Being Counted
The evidence is mixed. In Pennsylvania, up to nine percent or so of voters might be prevented by their new ID law. Nate Silver is seeing rates of 0.6% to 2% of votes depending on the state and demographics of voters. Nate Silver (see previous link) doesn’t think it likely that, for example, Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law will change the outcome of the presidential election. In some states that adopted photo ID early, 1,300 votes were discarded — and these are from people who bothered to cast a provisional ballot even though they knew the lack of ID would make them invalid and doesn’t count the likely many more who didn’t even bother to go to the polls. Regardless of what numbers you look at, it is certain that far more legitimate votes will not be counted (or never cast) because of identification laws than illegitimate votes prevented.
Yes, This Matters
There is almost no fraud an ID law would prevent. Identification requirements don’t stop people from mistakenly or fraudulently registering (even that kind of fraud is incredibly infrequent). It doesn’t stop people from skewing elections using illegal campaign tactics like telling a voter the wrong place or time to vote. An ID card doesn’t stop money being used to buy off a local race by paying a bunch of people to cast their ballots a particular way. It doesn’t stop the use of money to mislead or lie to voters.
All a voter ID requirement does is tell some citizens that they aren’t worth as much as others because of the lack of government-issued ID. It’s great you want to vote, but please spend a lot of time and money getting an ID first. You need to dance for the government before we’ll let you influence how that government is run1.
Voter ID laws make it harder for commonly disenfranchised voices from being part of democracy. If they actually prevented a significant amount of fraud, I might be able to get behind it. Even states with absolutely no identification requirements2 see little in the way of fraud. All I see in voter ID laws is a misguided belief that identification makes an election cleaner. Identification laws only make elections more complicated and prevent some people from voting. It’s a poll tax whether or not we call it that.
I realize in many states the identification rules include all kinds of ID, some not even state-issued. But the reality is that many people don’t have any of the forms that are accepted. Remember: not everyone has a bank account or a job or even a place to live. ↩
In a vote by mail state, you don’t have to show ID. Even worse, someone could just steal your mail and vote as you! ↩