Dan Tokaji's Blog
Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Monday, October 9
Commentary on Voter ID
Yesterday's New York Times featured this commentary from Adam Cohen on the voter ID bill sponsored by Henry Hyde (H.R. 4844), which the House recently passed, and other vote suppression efforts. Here's an excerpt:
The House of Representatives struck a major blow against democracy last month. It passed a bill that would deny the vote to anyone who shows up at the polls without a government-issued photo ID. The bill's requirements are so onerous and inflexible that they could prevent millions of eligible voters without driver's licenses -- who are disproportionately poor, minority or elderly -- from casting a ballot.

With that vote Congress joined a growing number of states that are erecting new barriers to voting. Republican-dominated legislatures and election officials have adopted absurdly difficult registration rules. They have removed eligible voters from the rolls with Katherine Harris-style purges, and required voters to buy ID cards to vote, a modern form of poll tax....

The voter ID laws that have been enacted recently have been set up not to verify voters' identities, but to stop certain groups from voting. Georgia's law -- whose sponsor was quoted in a Justice Department memo as saying that if blacks in her district "are not paid to vote, they don't go to the polls" -- required people to pay for voter ID cards, until the courts held that to be an illegal poll tax. When it took effect there was not a single office in Atlanta where the cards were for sale.

The current wave of laws began after 2000, when the presidency was decided by just 537 votes. With today's closely divided electorate, there is more strategic value than ever in disenfranchising people who fall into groups likely to support the other party. To a disheartening degree, this new wave is supported almost entirely by Republicans and opposed only by Democrats.

The opposition should be bipartisan. Disenfranchisement undermines not only American democracy, but also the whole idea of America, by illegitimately excluding some people from their rightful place in it.
Cohen also touches on other vote suppression measures, attempting to put them in historical context. More commentary critical of current vote suppression efforts may be found in Sunday's Boston Globe and today's Louisiana Weekly. Both liken the current wave of voter ID proposals to a poll tax, an apt comparison given the likelihood that they will disproportionately affect certain groups of voters, including racial minorities.

None of this is to deny that there is some fraud in our present system, although there's a tendency in some quarters to exaggerate the evidence that exists. The evidence of fraud that does exist is anecdotal, and mostly involves accustations of fraud with mail-in absentee ballots. A case in point is evidence from Alabama, discussed in this story and this editorial from Sunday's Montgomery Advertiser. For one interested in perpetrating voting fraud, it makes much more sense to do so by mail-in ballots than by actually showing up at the polls pretending to be someone else -- a high-risk, low-reward strategy by any measure. And mail-in ballots provide the only real opportunity in our system for buying and selling votes, something that's impossible with in-person ballots given the privacy of the voting booth.

There's precious little evidence of voters going to the polls pretending to be someone they're not, the ostensible justification for requiring voters to show photo ID. This is the great irony of the voter ID debate. Some states (including Georgia and Ohio) have made it easier to vote by mail, while at the same time making it harder to vote in person by requiring voters to show ID that some don't have. If one were really serious about curbing fraud or promoting access, one would incline toward the opposite approach.

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Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University