by Suevon Lee, ProPublica.
July 24: This post has been updated and corrected.
Voter IDs laws have become a political flashpoint in what’s gearing up to be another close election year. Supporters say the laws — which 30 states have now enacted in some form — are needed to combat voter fraud, while critics see them as a tactic to disenfranchise voters.
We’ve taken a step back to look at the facts behind the laws and break down the issues at the heart of the debate.
So what are these laws?
They are measures intended to ensure that a registered voter is who he says he is and not an impersonator trying to cast a ballot in someone else’s name. The laws, most of which have been passed in the last several years, require that registered voters show ID before they’re allowed to vote. Exactly what they need to show varies. Some states require a government-issued photo, while in others a current utility bill or bank statement is sufficient.
As a registered voter, I thought I always had to supply some form of ID during an election.
Not quite. Per federal law, first-time voters who registered by mail must present a photo ID or copy of a current bill or bank statement. Some states generally advise voters bring some form of photo ID. But prior to the 2006 election, no state ever required a voter to produce a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. Indiana in 2006 became the first state to enact a strict photo ID law, a law that was upheld two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Why are these voter ID laws so strongly opposed?
Voting law advocates contend these laws disproportionately affect elderly, minority and low-income groups that tend to vote Democratic. Obtaining photo ID can be costly and burdensome, with even free state ID requiring documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25 in some places. According to a study from NYU’s Brennan Center, 11 percent of voting-age citizens lack necessary photo ID while many people in rural areas have trouble accessing ID offices. During closing arguments in a recent case over Texas’s voter ID law, a lawyer for the state brushed aside these obstacles as the “reality to life of choosing to live in that part of Texas.”
Attorney General Eric Holder and others have compared the laws to a poll tax, in which Southern states during the Jim Crow era imposed voting fees, which discouraged the working class and poor, many of whom were minorities, from voting.
Given the sometimes costly steps required to obtain needed documents today, legal scholars argue that photo ID laws create a new “financial barrier to the ballot box.”
Just how well-founded are fears of voter fraud?
There have been only a small number of fraud cases resulting in a conviction. A New York Times analysis from 2007 identified 120 cases filed by the Justice Department over five years. These cases, many of which stemmed from mistakenly filled registration forms or misunderstanding over voter eligibility, resulted in 86 convictions.
There are “very few documented cases,” said UC-Irvine professor and election law specialist Rick Hasen. “When you do see election fraud, it invariably involves election officials taking steps to change election results or it involves absentee ballots which voter ID laws can’t prevent,” he said.
One of the most vocal supporters of strict voter ID laws, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that his office has prosecuted about 50 cases of voter fraud in recent years. “I know for a fact that voter fraud is real, that it must be stopped, and that voter id is one way to prevent cheating at the ballot box and ensure integrity in the electoral system,” he told the paper. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.