Why voter ID laws are harmful and unnecessary

The Republican legislators who were swept into state legislatures across the country in 2010 have, by and large, attempted to enact laws requiring voters to present a state-issued photo ID every time they vote. These laws will “ensure the integrity of our voting process”  by preventing voter fraud, which, we are told, is “a real problem.” Those are the words of Kris Kobach, Kansas’ Secretary of State, who wrote a voter ID law that Kansas approved this year and has been used as a model for many other states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Texas. Missouri’s Secretary of State, Robin Carnahan, opposes a proposed voter ID law in Missouri, saying it could disenfranchise up to 230,000 registered Missouri voters who do not possess any of the forms of photo ID required by the bill. Let’s take a look at their arguments. Kobach’s view is in an op-ed here and Carnahan’s is summarized here.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach

Kobach makes two arguments: voter fraud is a big problem and it is not a  burden to require voters to have an ID. His evidence that voter fraud is a pressing problem is that there were “221 incidents of voter fraud reported in Kansas between 1997 and 2010.” From 1997 to 2010, there were 3 Presidential elections and 3 mid-term Congressional elections in Kansas, as well as primary elections for each and numerous smaller municipal elections. Doing a quick, rough estimate, there were about 5.7 million votes cast in just the 6 national general elections in that time period. So if each of those 221 alleged incidents turned out to be real voter fraud, then 0.0039% of the votes in Kansas elections were fraudulent (not counting primaries or municipal elections in that period). That is an unbelievably small number. Forty votes per election out of the million cast. That’s not enough to change the outcome of any race.

But Kobach is only reporting that there were 221 allegations of voter fraud, not confirmed instances. How many of those 221 resulted in convictions? Answer: 7. “The vast majority of the cases were never investigated fully” and of the 30 that were, only 7 ended in convictions. So the state fully investigated 30 cases (probably the most serious or well-documented of the 221) and only found grounds to prosecuted a quarter? Even if I grant that many cases go unreported every year, the “true” number of fraud cases is insignificantly minuscule.

There’s also no evidence that voter ID laws would prevent the type of voting fraud that actually happens in elections. Requiring IDs would stop one person from impersonating someone else at the polls. Even among the allegedcases of voter fraud that have been reported, incidents like this are almost non-existent. Other types of fraud, which voter ID laws would not address, are more common.

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan

A voter ID law would not stop a rich Republican Congressman from voting at his second home, rather than his primary residence, but it could stop a poor or old person, who lacks an approved ID, from voting at all. Carnahan’s study found that “no instances of voter ID fraud have occurred in Missouri. The examples cited by those who push for stricter ID requirements are registration errors, not identification errors.” Read that again. There have never been any documented cases where voter fraud has occurred in Missouri, an average-sized state. Kobach cites many examples of “voter fraud” in his article, and predictably they are all cases of registration errors which a voter ID law would not fix.

So if a voter ID law would not prevent voter fraud, what would it do? It would keep legitimate, eligible citizens from voting. Carnahan found that 230,000 Missouri voters do not have IDs that would meet voter ID requirements. A 2006 survey found that 10 percent of Americans do not have the IDs that would be required under these laws. Well jeeze, I have a driver’s license and Kobach doesn’t even think that there are any people who lack a valid ID. Who are these people that Carnahan claims would be disenfranchised by voter ID laws?

They are:

college students in Missouri who had out-of-state driver’s licenses; African-American voters who were born in the rural south in an era when birth certificates were not being issued to them; senior citizens whose driver’s licenses had expired; displaced Katrina survivors whose records were destroyed in the hurricane, and disabled people unable to provide a consistent signature.

Even US Congressmen lack the IDs needed under this law (though thankfully, they can afford to get them). But Kobach is adamant:

Photo IDs have become ubiquitous and unavoidable. You can’t cash a check, board a plane or drive without one. That is why it’s not unreasonable to require picture identification to protect our most important privilege of citizenship.

I think Kobach and many like him assume that because photo IDs are “ubiquitous” in their lives, they must be ubiquitous in everyone’s life as well. Kobach is a middle-aged, upper-class white man from a very rural state. He probably can’t imagine that there are millions of people who use the bus or subway to get to work instead of driving a pickup truck. He probably can’t imagine what it would be like to have been born black in the South and to have never gotten a real birth certificate. He probably can’t imagine being too old to drive and without an original birth certificate. He also probably can’t imagine being so poor that its a real hardship to spend a day or two and 50 bucks dealing with bureaucrats to get the paperwork required for a photo ID. Maybe he also can’t imagine going out of state to college and wanting to vote in his new home.

But voters should not be disenfranchised because of the lack of  imagination of Kris Kobach and people like him. They should not have their most basic right taken from them because some Republican lawmakers decided to wage a quixotic campaign against a problem that doesn’t even exist. I have no doubt that voter ID laws sound like good policy to someone like Kris Kobach. But people like him need to first look at the facts about the “problem” they are trying to “solve” and second they need to think of how their actions will affect the most vulnerable in society.

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  1. September 30th, 2011

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