What Do ID Laws Really Mean for Voters?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Voter Identification laws have been slowly but surely changing around the United States, and an increasing number of states have some sort of identification requirement for casting your vote in elections. At the end of last week, a federal appeals court added Wisconsin to the list of states allowed to enforce voter ID laws while the state’s appeal continues.

The issue is a controversial one and highly partisan, as it could potentially affect far more Democrats than Republicans that show up on voting day. Voter ID may not seem like a big deal to many Americans. After all, not all states are requiring it, and plenty of people probably wouldn’t think twice about having to bring a drivers license to the polls. But to many others, ID is far more of an issue, and certain areas, socioeconomic groups, and racial groups are disproportionately inconvenienced and even prevented from voting by such laws.

What States Are Enforcing Voter ID?

Wisconsin is the ninth to state to enforce strict ID laws alongside Texas, Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Indiana, and Mississippi, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which provides the handy map seen below. Arizona, North Dakota, and Ohio all have strict non-photo ID requirements, and 20 other states have non-strict photo and non-photo ID requirements that are enforced to varying degrees.

Arkansas’s photo ID laws are currently under appeal alongside Wisconsin’s, and other states have laws that are either going into effect at a later date or have been struck down.


How Many Will It Really Hurt?

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Research shows that more than 21 million Americans do not have government-issued photo identification; a disproportionate number of these Americans are low-income, racial, and ethnic minorities, and elderly.”

“Many of these Americans cannot afford to pay for the required documents needed to secure a government-issued photo ID,” notes the ACLU. This refers to the fact that some states require you to purchase photo ID, and even those that give residents IDs for free may demand a birth certificate in order to apply. Ordering documents like that can be as much as $25.00, which for some is more money than they can afford, and ends up being comparable to pre-Civil Rights rules that demanded a payment from voters, effectively limiting the electorate to white and wealthy citizens.

Why Do States Want IDs?

The main concern referenced has been voter fraud, but available information suggests it is an unfounded concern. Back in 2007, The New York Times found that only 120 individuals had been charged with voter fraud, and only 86 convicted over the course of five years of Bush administration efforts. An examination of Justice Department cases at the time showed that many of the charges had been against people who had made mistakes when filling out forms or had not understood the voting eligibility rules — like one former convict who attempted to use his prison ID card to register.

Hardly a number that could sway a vote, and hardly an epidemic of corrupt voting practices. Unsurprisingly, Republicans — who would most gain from Voter ID laws and the votes lost by their implementation — are the most common sources of concern over voter fraud. “There was nothing that we uncovered that suggested some sort of concerted effort to tilt the election,” said Richard G. Frohling, assistant U.S. attorney in Milwaukee, to The New York Times.

What About Wisconsin?

Wisconsin is particularly relevant given the approaching midterms, and the neck and neck nature of the Senate race this coming election. Professor of election law Rick Hasen, of University of California, Irvine, wrote that implementing the law in Wisconsin is a “very bad idea,” especially given that almost 12,000 absentee ballots have been sent out to WI voters sans instructions for presenting photo ID. “It is hard enough to administer an election with set rules — much less to change the rules midstream,” wrote Hasen.

The implementation is particularly problematic considering legal proceedings are still underway, but that the stay on ID requirements has been lifted by the Seventh Circuit court. It is also possible that the Supreme Court will step in and stop the law from going into effect as it has in other cases — such as with same-sex marriage — to prevent over-complication and confusion before final decisions have been made. Ultimately, Wisconsin may be in for a strange election if it does not, and if absentee ballots — often used by older residents — are dismissed due to lack of ID, it will once again be a loss for Democrats, who can hardly afford to lose votes this season.

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