The Senate is poised to take up, as soon as this week, the Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006. Some say the act is an overdue, common-sense measure to prevent voter fraud; others protest that it’s a clever attempt at voter suppression, if not outright disenfranchisement.
Regardless of who’s right one thing is certain: If passed, the act will spawn considerable litigation. In fact, the day before the House passed the bill last week a Fulton County, Georgia superior-court judge struck down a nearly identical Georgia statute.
The Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006 requires that by the 2008 presidential election all voters in federal elections must present a valid, current photo ID issued by a government agency. By the 2010 midterms, the photo ID must document the voter’s U.S. citizenship.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the IDs would cost about $10 each. The act requires that states reimburse the cost of the ID to any voter who attests that he can’t pay for an ID. A person who appears at a polling station without valid ID may cast a provisional ballot that will be counted provided ID is furnished within 48 hours after the ballot has been cast. Absentee ballots must be accompanied by copies of the necessary proofs (this doesn’t apply to troops overseas).
Senate Democrats, led by Minority Leader Harry Reid, issued a statement at the end of last week urging Senator Frist to not even bring the bill to the Senate floor. Senate Democrats contend that the act has been “likened to a modern-day poll tax and would disenfranchise thousands.”
A number of civil-rights groups have drawn the poll-tax comparison also, arguing that the act’s requirements create barriers to voting, particularly for the poor, elderly, disabled, and minorities. The opponents assert that the foregoing groups are far less likely to have the documentation — driver’s licenses, passports, birth certificates, naturalization certificates — required by the act.
Opponents further assert that the required documents are more difficult to obtain for minorities and naturalized citizens, many of whom weren’t born in hospitals — at least American hospitals — and don’t have the transportation or financial means to acquire the documents from original sources. A study by the University of Wisconsin’s Employment Training Institute cited by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shows that only 45 percent of black males of voting age in the Milwaukee area have driver’s licenses. In addition, only 59 percent of Hispanic women of voting age have licenses. The elderly are less likely to possess licenses also. In fact, 35 percent of voting-age residents in the Greater Milwaukee area don’t have licenses. Similar statistics could probably be adduced in other urban areas. (In the states that have photo-ID requirements currently, about 7 percent of eligible voters don’t have compliant ID. The CBO estimates that this translates to about 4 percent of registered voters. )
The poll-tax comparison is overblown, and not because the $10 cost for the ID might seem to some to be a modest fee. A voting standard that may result in a direct or indirect charge for ballot access can’t be dismissed as trivial. Indeed, just last year a U.S. District Court in Georgia enjoined enforcement of Georgia’s newly passed ID statute because it would cost eligible voters $20. Georgia then revised its statute so that photo ID would be provided free of charge to anyone who provided an affidavit of indigency. Nonetheless, last week a state-court judge sustained a challenge to the revised statute brought by a disabled, elderly black woman, finding that the photo ID requirement “makes it so difficult or inconvenient that it amounts to a denial of the right to vote”.
But do the costs and difficulties associated with the act amount to a poll tax likely to disenfranchise certain voters?
The 24th Amendment, enacted in 1964, outlawed the use of poll taxes in federal elections. Shortly thereafter, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited poll taxes in state and local elections. (In 1966, the Supreme Court held in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that poll taxes violated the Fourteenth Amendment too.)
At the time these prohibitions were passed, five states in the Deep South employed poll taxes to disenfranchise black citizens. The amount of the tax varied somewhat from state to state. During the Depression the value of the poll tax sometimes amounted to more than a month’s pay for a rural black voter. And the tax, including any back taxes, had to be paid for each election. Every black voter had to pay, regardless of impecunity.
The poll tax was as effective as it was despicable. At the time the Voting Rights Act was passed, only 7 percent of eligible blacks voted in Mississippi. In Georgia, barely 19 percent of eligible blacks voted. Today, black voting rates in these areas are virtually indistinguishable from those of whites.
A one-time fee of $10 dollars doesn’t present the same barrier to voting as the poll taxes of the past, especially when the act would provide valid IDs to the poor free of charge. But the Georgia state court still found that the state statute impeded access to the polls. Only about a third of Georgia counties have Motor Vehicle Department offices where the IDs may be obtained. Some voters would have to travel to other counties to get IDs.
The act, however, addresses this problem, if imperfectly. It’s contemplated that federal funds will be provided to counties without DMVs to establish photo-ID sites. Moreover, funds are dedicated to voter outreach to insure that everyone who wants a voter ID can get one.
Without conceding that the act effectively addresses the potential barriers to voting, opponents assert that there’s little evidence of the voter fraud the Act seeks to remedy or prevent. The assertion is absurd. There’s a reason why everyone’s familiar with the phrase “vote early and often.” Just a few examples:
The 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes in Florida. Florida newspapers discovered that at least 2000 votes were illegally cast—more than enough to affect the outcome of the election. And that total was for less than half of Florida’s counties and doesn’t include the number of felons who cast votes illegally.
In the 1998 Miami mayoral election, the discovery of rampant forgeries among absentee ballots resulted in the mayor’s removal from office.
A major 2001 voter-registration drive in St. Louis’ black community produced 3,800 new voter cards. When some of the names appeared suspicious, elections officials investigated all of the cards and determined that nearly every single one was fraudulent. Dogs, the dead and people who simply didn’t want to register were among the new registrants.
The potential for fraud exists also. The Cato Institute’s John Samples, testifying before the Senate Rules Committee in 2001 on another matter, noted that while Alaska has 503,000 people on its voter rolls, there are only 437,000 people of voting age in the state. The names of at least 15,000 dead people are on the rolls in Georgia. The Indianapolis Star found that in Indiana tens of thousands of names appear on the voter rolls more than once; 1 in 5 names don’t belong on the voter rolls.
Twenty-four states have some voter-ID requirement. Seven states either have a photo-ID requirement or legislation for same pending. Americans support photo identification for voting by 4 to 1. None of this, of course, has any bearing on the merits of the act.
Little evidence of voter fraud was adduced at the hearings prior to passage of the act in the House. Then again, neither was there much evidence that a photo-ID requirement would suppress votes. As a result, any evidence on the issue probably will come out in a courtroom.
– Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the National Labor Relations Board. These comments do not necessarily reflect the positions of either organization.