Politics & Policy

The Photo-ID Fuss

Lining up to vote. (Dreamtime)
Photo-identification requirements don’t disenfranchise voters, but they don’t eliminate fraud, either.

In 2013 the North Carolina legislature passed, and Republican governor Pat McCrory signed into law, a sweeping overhaul of the state’s voting laws. Among other changes, the early-voting period will be cut from 17 to ten days, out-of-state driver’s licenses will be valid only for a limited time for new North Carolina voters, there will no longer be same-day registration, and — most contentiously — voters will be required to present valid photo identification at the ballot box. On Monday, a North Carolina district judge will decide whether to issue an injunction against any of the law’s provisions.

In 2015, the suit brought against the law by the U.S. Department of Justice, the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the ACLU will go to trial. In the meantime, North Carolina is likely to become the latest battleground over procedures at the polls — and a case study in liberal hysterics.

Exhibit A: North Carolina NAACP’s president, Reverend William Barber, who has called the law “a full assault on the franchise of voting.” Barber is the mastermind behind North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” rallies, in which Democratic demonstrators gather to protest the latest activity from the majority-Republican legislature or the Republican governor’s mansion. The revised voting law is among the movement’s main targets.

Ironically, Moral Monday may not be well suited to demonstrate against photo-identification requirements at the polls. The NAACP has recommended that participants in the marches “bring photo identification (driver’s license, passport, or other valid photo ID) with you and keep it on your person at all times.”

That lapse in consistency does not refute the case against identification at the voting booth, but it does suggest that even Democrats — who maintain as one of their central arguments against the law that photo identification is difficult to obtain — presume that most people have a photo ID on hand.

Which is what the data suggest. In April a federal court struck down Wisconsin’s voter-ID law, signed in 2011, concluding that 300,000 Wisconsinites were disenfranchised by the photo-ID requirement, particularly blacks and Latinos. The state provides free photo-ID cards, but to apply, voters must provide other government-issued documents, such as a birth certificate or proof of residence. Writing at National Review Online at the time, Hans A. von Spakovsky observed a problem with Judge Lynn Adelman’s decision — that it defied Supreme Court precedent. In 2008, the Supreme Court, in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, concluded that Indiana’s photo-identification requirement was not an undue burden, provided that the state continue to offer official photo IDs free of charge. “The inconvenience of making a trip to the BMV [Bureau of Motor Vehicles], gathering the required documents, and posing for a photograph, surely does not qualify as a substantial burden on the right to vote,” the court wrote, “or even represent a significant increase over the usual burdens of voting.” Wisconsin’s law fit squarely into the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Meanwhile, two months before the Wisconsin decision, a federal judge in Tennessee followed Supreme Court precedent and upheld Tennessee’s photo-ID requirement, which was in effect for elections in 2012. Did minorities vanish from the polls? Hardly. Attorney Cleta Mitchell — who currently represents the nonprofit vote-monitoring organization True the Vote — observed not long after that only 154 of 645,775 voters in Tennessee’s 2012 March primary were unable to show, or to obtain within the requisite post-election window, a photo ID. And census data show turnout among black voters increased in both Tennessee and Indiana in 2012 following the implementation of the laws.

Most states are following the evidence. Twenty states require photo identification at the voting booth, and another 14 have non-photo requirements on their books.

The back-and-forth about the data, though, which has constituted the bulk of the debate in each state where voter-ID laws have been proposed, obscures the salient reality, which is simple: Laws requiring photo identification are neither the boon that some Republicans claim nor the burden claimed by some Democrats. A photo ID is a helpful added layer of security on what should already be standard operating procedure at most voting booths: confirming that the person claiming a ballot is, in fact, who he says he is. However, it will not prevent many types of voter fraud: intimidation, vote buying, ballot stuffing, and tampering, to name just a few. On the other side, the number of things for which one must have a photo ID — purchasing alcohol or cigarettes; opening a bank account; applying for food stamps or welfare — suggests that the vast majority of Americans, rich and poor alike, already have photo IDs, and that they are accessible to most. The number of people for whom obtaining a photo ID is difficult is an infinitesimal minority. Voter ID will not solve the very real problem of voter fraud, but it also will not keep minorities away from the polls.

States would increase the likelihood of integrity at the polls by pursuing other methods, such as aggressively purging voter rolls, in addition to voter-ID requirements. After the 2008 presidential election, reports of votes cast by ineligible voters — deceased or non-citizens — surfaced in Texas, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan, among others. Voter-ID requirements are not sufficient to impede, say, voters casting multiple ballots. More is needed.

But assertive efforts to ensure that only legitimate voters are casting ballots are likely to be bellowed down for a long time to come. For Democrats, a narrative is at stake: the ages-long scandal of wealthy Republicans using the law to disenfranchise poor, minority voters. North Carolina’s law will ultimately survive, but accusations of racism, and the laborious trudge through the courts, will embroil the state for yet another year.

Perhaps, in lieu of a judicial remedy, dissatisfied Democrats should head to the polls in November and just vote the culprits out. Contrary to popular belief, they will find it is no hassle to do so.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.


Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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