Texas last month became the latest state to win a legal battle against its voter identification law, closely following a win by North Carolina.
With two more states moving to pass laws requiring voters to prove their identity with a photo ID, liberal interest groups that have been trying to block ballot-security measures are on their heels. Both sides see partisan advantage in the debate, with Republicans believing photo ID laws benefit them by reducing fraud and many Democrats convinced the laws hurt them by disenfranchising poor and minority voters who tend to vote Democrat.
But the overwhelming evidence is that both sides are wrong, or at least largely exaggerate the impact.
“The numbers are fairly low,” said Donald Palmer, a former secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections and a fellow at the centrist Bipartisan Policy Center.
Dan Takaji, an elections law expert at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said the turnout impact of photo ID laws could be 3 percent to 5 percent. Other experts who have studied the issue conclude voter ID laws have virtually no impact on voter turnout.
Palmer has detailed how activist groups, media reports, and even some judges have grossly exaggerated the number of registered voters without valid identification.
Bipartisan No Longer
Voter ID laws date all the way back to the 1950s, when South Carolina became the first state to ask people to produce identification in order to vote. Both Republican-leaning and Democratic states followed suit, with little public outcry. Today, 34 states have some ID law on the books, including 25 that require or request photo IDs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission, formed to examine the problems during the 2004 election, recommended in 2005 that states adopt voter ID laws. Since then, though, the issue has become increasingly partisan as states moved to pass stricter statutes requiring photo ID. A Supreme Court ruling in 2008 upholding an Indiana law gave states a green light. Still, about a half-dozen laws are in the courts at some stage.
“At some point, it became a partisan issue,” Palmer said. “And I think that’s unfortunate.”
Takaji said the judicial fights have produced a “mixed bag,” with some courts striking down laws and others upholding them. He said the federal courts use a balancing test, weighing the state’s interest in combating fraud against how onerous the barriers to voting are and whether they disparately impact certain groups of voters.
“It depends on the evidence,” he said. “The facts really matter here.”
[lz_table title=”Voter ID Challenges”]
Judge in February refused to block enforcement of law in primary; case still pending.
Judge ruled in April that law is valid; plaintiffs have vowed appeal.
Judge in April refused to dismiss a lawsuit accusing law of violating Voting Rights Act.
Supreme Court in April left law in place while appeals court reviews it.
Trial on lawsuit concluded in March. Judge has not ruled.
Appeals court ruled in April that trial judge should determine whether it applies to those facing special obstacles.
Some laws have run into legal trouble — not based on the U.S. Constitution, but on provisions unique to state constitutions.
“Virtually all of the states that have photo ID have faced some sort of challenge,” said Wendy Underhill, senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “In a couple of states, they have had a hard stop in the state courts … Missouri and Pennsylvania are the poster children for states that have been blocked by state Supreme Courts.”
Thwarted by the state Supreme Court, Missouri lawmakers passed a new voter ID law that they will send to voters in the form of a state constitutional amendment. A new photo ID law will take effect in West Virginia in 2018.
Momentum is on the sides of the states. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Texas to enforce its law while a lower court reviews it. A judge in North Carolina the same month ruled against plaintiffs challenging that state’s law. In some cases, states have revised laws to address judicial concerns. After a federal judge struck down Georgia’s photo ID law in 2005, likening the $20 fee for a digital picture ID to a poll tax, the legislature provided for a free ID.
Record Turnout in Alabama
That is the route Alabama took when it added a photo ID requirement to its law in 2011. Under the statute, which took effect in 2014, any voter who does not have a driver’s license or other valid ID can get a free voter photo ID from the state. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said his office has given out about 7,000 of them, an indication that few voters lack photo ID.
“Our goal is and has been and continues to be to ensure every eligible U.S. citizen who is a resident of Alabama is registered to vote and has an ID,” he said. “We want to make it real easy to vote and real hard to cheat.”
Merrill ticked off a number of steps his office has taken to promote voting. Last year, a state van visited all 67 counties to register voters remotely. It will do so again this year. In addition, he said, he has asked each probate judge to suggest three locations for voter registration drives and has made sure to hit every major festival throughout Alabama, from the National Peanut Festival in Dothan to the Rattlesnake Rodeo in Opp.
The state’s two most recognizable figures, University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Auburn University coach Gus Malzahn, have cut public service announcements. And the secretary of state’s office launched an online system allowing voters update records with change of addresses. It has been used 100,000 times, Merrill said.
“We’ve even been to a man’s home, because he was homebound,” he said. “And I would do that again if I had to.”
In February, a federal judge denied a request by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to block enforcement of the law for the March 1 presidential primary election and, Merrill noted, the state saw its highest voter turnout ever for a primary. He said that not a single valid voter was turned away at the polls. He said 88 percent of all eligible black residents are registered to vote, even higher than the 84 percent of eligible white voters who are registered.
Merrill said the state’s free voter ID cards are so rarely used because most people have driver’s licenses. The 3.5 million licensed drivers exceeds the 3.1 million registered voters.
Those results do not surprise Hans von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He said it is untrue that there are many people who lack photo ID. He said requiring voters to obtain a photo ID is no more onerous than requiring them to register to vote.
“These claims have been made for the last decade, and they’ve all proven to be untrue,” he said. “Estimates made by people on the Left are always grossly over-inflated. The reason is, you have a hard time existing in this country in your day-to-day life without an ID.”
Spakovsky said poor people are even less able to function without IDs than the wealthy. He pointed out that ID is required for most welfare programs. To the argument that in-person voter fraud is exceedingly rare, he said the extent cannot be known without a mechanism to catch it. He referred to Brooklyn grand jury report in 1984 that detailed a 14-year conspiracy to send voters under assumed identities to the polls.
“It basically lays out what is possible if you don’t have voter ID laws,” he said.