The new ID laws have almost invariably been sponsored—and promoted—by Republicans, who claim that they are needed to prevent fraud. (In five states, Democratic governors vetoed ID laws passed by Republican legislatures.) Often working from a template provided by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Republican state legislators have insisted that the threat of election fraud is compelling and widespread; in December 2011, the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA) buttressed that claim by publishing a list of reported election crimes during the last 12 years. Republicans have also maintained that a photo ID requirement is not particularly burdensome in an era when such documents are routinely needed to board an airplane or enter an office building. Public opinion polls indicate that these arguments sound reasonable to the American people, a majority of whom support the concept of photo ID requirements. The Supreme Court has taken a similar view, although it left open the possibility of reconsidering that verdict if new evidence were to emerge.
Critics of these laws (myself included) have doubted both their necessity and their ability to keep elections honest. The only type of fraud that a strict photo ID rule would actually prevent is voter impersonation fraud (I go to the polls pretending to be you), and, in fact, voter impersonation fraud is exceedingly rare. In Indiana, where the Republican-dominated legislature passed one of the first new ID laws in 2005 (on a straight party-line vote), there had been no known instances of voter impersonation in the state’s history. In Texas, a strict ID law was enacted last year, although the 2008 and 2010 elections gave rise to only five formal complaints about voter impersonation (out of 13 million votes cast). “There are more UFO and Bigfoot sightings than documented cases of voter impersonation,” quipped one Texas Democrat. Close inspection of the RNLA’s inventory of election fraud, moreover, has found it to be flawed and misleading; most election experts believe that the greatest threat to election integrity comes from absentee ballots—a threat that would not be addressed by the current laws.…Alas, that does not seem to be what the sponsors of the current measures have in mind. In 2008, for example, Indiana’s state government simply tossed the access problem into the laps of individual citizens, leading to a widely publicized episode in which elderly nuns who had been voting for decades arrived at the polls but were not permitted to vote because they lacked driver’s licenses. Other states have adopted the same posture: it is up to potential voters to figure out how to navigate around the new obstacle that the state has placed in their path. As a consequence, some of those voters—perhaps thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands—will end up being unable to cast ballots in a very important election. Whatever the numbers turn out to be, the laws themselves are unworthy of a modern, sophisticated nation that identifies itself as democratic. They are not effective policy instruments; they chip away at the core democratic value of inclusiveness; and they resonate with the worst, rather than the best, of our political traditions.
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