Voter ID laws are being introduced in a number of states across the United States, the majority of them being red States. The purpose of these laws are supposedly to combat voter impersonation fraud that apparently has become a serious problem in the view of conservative lawmakers and advocates. Liberal groups are calling foul, claiming that these laws do nothing but discriminate against minorities and the poor, those eligible voters who typically do not possess any form of photo I.D.
There shouldn’t really be a problem with requiring people to present identification in order to vote provided that state governments are willing to issue I.D’s to those without them, at no cost. If governments can demonstrate that they are willing to transition their constituents to get the necessary I.D in order to vote then I fail to see an issue. So how do we define “cost barriers” when it comes to voter I.D laws? Well to state the obvious, state governments will need to provide I.D’s to those requiring them at no cost. The assumption here may be that because State governments are offering free I.D’s to those who need it, the problem is solved, right? Well as the old saying goes, “there is no such thing as a free lunch”.
To provide “proof” to attain those free government issued cards it may still cost those individuals to apply for them as those applications may in turn require documents not in possession by those individuals concerned. The application process may also daunting as, believe or not, many of the less fortunate do still work and they may not have the spare time to apply for those I.D’s due to work and family obligations. Another cost barrier to those individuals concerned may be their inability to travel to apply for those I.D’s (many of the poor live in isolated rural settings away from State buildings or post offices, many do not have access to the internet either). None of the State I.D laws that I am aware of offer a cost free solution to those less fortunate. Washington Post referred to a particular study that demonstrated the costs to eligible voters under voter ID laws (14):
The report said birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required in some states for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. “By comparison, the notorious poll tax — outlawed during the civil rights era — cost $10.64 in current dollars,” the report states
Advocates of voter ID law may argue that those costs are minor sacrifices citizens must make in order to crack down on voter fraud. But even $8.00 is a lot of money to the less fortunate, $8 is a meal for a family of 4 to those less fortunate. These costs are deterrents to potential and lower class voters, but I highly doubt this is of a concern to proponents of these laws.
How does this all relate to poll taxes you may ask? Well let’s look at the Harper v. Virginia State Board of elections (13):
Held. Justice William Douglas (J. Douglas). No. “[A] State violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard.” “[W]ealth or fee paying has, in our view, no relation to voting qualifications; the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned.” The judgment is reversed.
Whether or not the costs assoicated with getting valid I.D is in the same nature as that of a poll tax is something the courts need to interpret themselves. So far none of the State governments I am aware of have demonstrated an interest in ensuring that their constituents are not left out of the voting process because of these laws.
In addition to the burden ofcost on citizens associated with voter I.D laws, some State I.D laws are evidently biased in favouring certain forms of identification and not others, Texas is one such example (12):
More than one million students attend colleges, universities and technical schools in Texas. But because of the state’s new voter identification law, none will be allowed to use their student ID cards to cast a ballot.
When Texas state legislators moved to cut student IDs from the list of acceptable voter identifications in May, they actually made voting easier for some residents: Now gun owners in Texas are allowed to use their concealed-carry permits as valid proof of the right to vote.
One could rationalize that the fundamental differences between concealed-carry permits and Student I.D is that one is issued through the State and the other is given by private institution. However, just because concealed-carry permits are State issued does not mean it is any more of a valid form of identification than student I.Ds, this is not always necessarily the case. As a matter of fact, it has become significantly easier nowadays to attain state issued gun permits (15):
In just the past three years, 22 states have weakened or eliminated laws regulating the possession of concealed weapons, according to the Legal Community Against Violence, a public-interest law firm in San Francisco that supports more restrictive gun laws.
These measures are easing testing and eligibility requirements for obtaining a permit, opening up new public and private places where people can have concealed weapons, and giving new legal clout to those who use guns to defend themselves.
Numerous states have also lowered barriers to obtaining a permit. Since 2009, Virginia has allowed applicants to satisfy a training and safety requirement under the law by completing an online test. That has given rise to a cottage industry of instructors who promise results in about an hour – no prior experience necessary.
At the moment Federal authorities are looking into whether the Texas’ Voter ID law discriminates segments of the eligible voting population (7), the matter is being looked into.
My personal position
I do sympathize somewhat with my conservative counterparts on this matter. Personally I cannot imagine how adults can function in life without some form of identification. For example you often require I.D for the following:
- The purchasing of alcohol
- To get your drivers licence (or to renew it) (1)
- To apply for welfare benefits (2)
- In most cases, employment
- To become a member at a video store.
- To apply for a passport
- To get a plane ticket
- To join the military (3)
- To lay-by items (or put them on monthly payment) (4)
- Applying for a credit card
The list of things you are required to present some form of identification are plenty and it would take me all day go down all of them. In all fairness you do not require I.D in every case of the list I provided above. For example, many adults are not necessarily asked for photo I.D at the liquor store because their age may be rather obvious. I am also aware of some places of employment that do not require identification e.g seasonal work. That being said, in many cases you do require some form of identification and I fail to see how even the poor can function in life without having some form of I.D. Regardless, it is a reality that there is a significant portion of eligible voters who do not possess any form of I.D. According to the Brennan Center, approximately 11% of eligible voters are without I.D and the vast majority of them are poor and minority (democratic leaning)(5).
The reality of voter fraud
Is there really a major problem with voter fraud in America? Is it as significant as many conservative new sources claim it to be? There is no doubt that voter fraud exists, but whether it is a major issue to begin with is highly questionable, there is no evidence to suggest that any of the State, congressional and presidential elections were significantly impacted by voter impersonation and fraud over the last 10 years. Let’s actually take a look at many of the incidences involving voter fraud in just the last decade alone:
I would like to note the key source: Levitt, J. (2007). The Truth about Voter Fraud. Retrieved 23rd July 2012 from:
In Missouri in 2000 and 2002, hundreds of voters were alleged to have voted twice, either within the state or once in Kansas and once in Missouri. The same analysis acknowledged that the “computer files contain many errors that show people voting who did not actually vote.”71 Of 18 Kansas City cases that reporters followed up, 13 were affirmatively shown to result from clerical errors.72 We are aware of public sources substantiating only four cases (amounting to six votes within the state),
In New Hampshire in 2004, citizens were alleged to have voted twice. In fact, on further investigation, many of the voters who were allegedly listed multiple times on the rolls actually represented different people with identical names; others were listed with multiple registrations, but voted only once. We are not aware of any public materials substantiating the claims of double voting.
In New Jersey in 2004, 4,397 voters were alleged to have voted twice within the state, and 6,572 voters were alleged to have voted once in New Jersey and once elsewhere.75 Many of these alleged double votes were actually flawed matches of names and/or birthdates on voter rolls.76 Only eight cases were actually documented through signatures on poll books
In New York in 2002 and 2004, between 400 and 1,000 voters were alleged to have voted once in New York and once in Florida. These allegations were also prompted by a flawed attempt to match names and birthdates.
In Wisconsin in 2004, dozens of voters were alleged to have voted twice. After further investigation, the vast majority were affirmatively cleared, with some attributed to clerical errors and confusion caused by flawed attempts to match names and birthdates. There were 14 alleged reports of voters casting ballots both absentee and in person; at least 12 were caught, and the absentee ballot was not counted. There were no substantiated reports of any intentional double voting of which we are aware.
The case of Alan Mandel:
Despite having died in 1997, Alan J. Mandel was alleged to have voted in 1998. On further investigation, Alan J. Mandell (two “l”s), who was very much alive and voting at the time, explained that local election workers simply checked the wrong name off of the list.88 Indeed, a 2007 investigation of about 100 “dead voters” in Missouri revealed that every single purported case was properly attributed either to a matching error, a problem in the underlying data, or a clerical error by elections officials or voters.
Other findings from investigations on alleged dead voters:
In Georgia in 2000, 5,412 votes were alleged to have been cast by deceased voters, upon investigation it turned out that it was an error, no fraudulent votes were found.
In Michigan in 2005, 132 votes were alleged to have been cast by deceased voters, only 8 cases were revealed as substantiated fraud.
In New Jersey in 2004, 4,755 deceased voters were alleged to have cast a ballot. In the end upon investigation it turned out to be a flaw on those managing the voters list.
In New York in 2002 and 2004, 2,600 deceased voters were alleged to have cast a ballot, again based on a match of voter rolls to death lists, there turned out to be no voter fraud in the end, upon investigation.
Allegations of voter fraud in the Colorado 2010 midterm elections
In 2010, Colorado Secretary of State, Scott Gessler (Republican) claimed that 5000 illegal immigrants or ineligible voters may have voted in those State elections. It did not take long for this claim to quickly spread among various conservative websites and blogs where many began to call foul in the elections. It is important to note that the Democratic incumbents were successful in holding their seats in those midterms against their republican competitors. So upon investigation, just solid was Gessler’s estimation of the voter fraud that had occurred in those elections? (16):
Andrew Cole, a spokesman with Gessler’s office, said he was attempting to make a point that our current system does not have the capability to effectively confirm with certainty the eligibility of voters in the state.
In his statement before Congress, Gessler was able to say they were only “nearly certain that 106 individuals are improperly registered to vote.” Cole explained the 5,000 number arose from individuals who were identified as being ineligible to vote at the time they obtained their driver’s license.
In the end Gessler could only be certain that 106 individuals, around 2% of his initial 5,000 estimate, who could be accounted for possible fraudulent voter activity. The link to the article above explains in detail where the estimates of voter fraud went wrong in Colorado during the 2010 midterms and why their estimations were over the top.
Still 106 fraudulent voters is still somwhat significant and there are numerous examples of election results where the winner had won with less than 100 voters (see the most recent example, the Republican Iowa primaries of 2012). That being said, 106 suspected cases of voter fraud does not automatically equate to 106 convictions as many of our other examples demonstrate. Gessler had not demonstrated the actual number voter fraud and to date Gessler’s investigation is still inconclusive as to whether there have been any individuals whom had committed voter fraud(8).
Convictions of voter fraud in Texas
With more than 18 million people of voting age, 15 million of whom participated in the 2010 midterms, Texas has the second highest population of eligible voters in the United States (9). Despite this number, Texas State attorney general, Greg Abbott ,only reported around 57 convictions of voter fraud since 2002 (10), over a period of 10 years. But even the figure of 57 convictions given by Abbott was not completely accurate, as Politifact reported (18):
Only two cases are described as “voter impersonation” on the list. Whether voter impersonation is a standing problem has been a hot button in the state’s legislative debates over proposed voter ID laws in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011; Austin American-Statesman news stories say legislators mostly split along party lines, with Democrats claiming impersonation is rare and Republicans claiming the problem is significant. Abbott drew criticism in 2006 for creating a special unit to target voter fraud that by mid-2008 had yielded, according to a May 19, 2008, Associated Press news story, only 26 prosecutions.
Turns out 57 convictions is not accurate at all considering that this figure included 10 pre-trail diversions, 2 acquittals and 4 dismissals.
The 1982 Illinois Governors race
One of the older cases cited by many conservative websites on voter fraud. The 1982 governors race in Illinois is touted as the States closest elections where Democratic Candidate Adlai Stevenson the 3rd and incumbent James Thompson were only seperated by a fraction of 1% of the total vote. It’s easy to understand by looking at the results of the elections as to how high tensions were and the allegations of voter fraud that followed. Following the elections a Grand Jury along with Illinios Attorney Dan Kebb had estimated that around 100,000 votes were fraudulent. This estimated figure has been touted around a number of websites as if that was the actual number of fraudulent votes that were cast during the elections, this is of course false. The actual convictions of fraud, the individual cases of proven fault, amounted to 58 convictions (17), less than 0.00060% of the initial estimate. 58 cases of fraud is still serious, but it is evident that the initial estimate of voter fraud was again grossly overestimated. More than 3 million votes were cast in Illinois’ gubernatorial elections, 1982.
Over the last 5 years around 120 cases were filed by the justice department on the basis of voter fraud yet only 86 of those cases resulted in actual convictions (11). UC-Irvine professor and election law specialist, Rick Hasen, stated the obvious about voter fraud in the United States (22):
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.
Voter fraud or voter impersonation is very rare. It is not, contrary to the many claims out there, a major problem of any sort. Voter fraud is a crime and those who commit it must be held accountable to the full, it is important that we secure the election process. Nevertheless it is false to claim that it has impacted on a number of election outcomes in recent years. As statistics show, this is not the case at all.
Effectiveness of current Voter ID laws
So just how effective have current voter I.D laws impacted in those States that have already implemented them? In 2006 Georgia was among some of the first States to implement a voter I.D law (6), in fact their law only accepted photo I.D from eligible voters. What difference did this law make in the following years in the case of Georgia? Well not much by the looks of it, isolated incidences of voter fraud still persist, unchanged from prior to the law (19) (20) (21):
State officials launched an investigation after an unusually high number of absentee ballots were cast in the July 2010 primary election. “As a result of their grand jury findings 12 individuals were indicted in that particular matter and we will be trying that case in a court of judicial law instead of a court of public opinion so that will be pending this next year,” said District Attorney Joe Mulholland.
(2008) A Hartwell businessman is under investigation for voter fraud in Georgia and Hart County Registrar Libby Forbes said she learned Tom Habel, of 54 Whitehall St., voted in both Hart County and Collier County, Fla., in October, when she was approached by a reporter for WSBTV in Atlanta, last week.
Jack Justice, a mentally disabled man in Dougherty County, Georgia was taken by an aide from his adult day rehab agency to vote and the aide filed out the ballot to his own specifications, rather than Mr. Justice’s.
Georgia is just one example of the States that had implemented these voter I.D laws only to find that they have had a minimal effect on the rate of voter fraud itself. GOP politicians have failed to clarify what changes these laws have really made over the years, aside from restricting a number of eligible and potential voters.
What have we concluded here? Well we’ve discovered that there have been no cases of significant voter fraud over the last decade. Neither the proponents of these voter I.D laws or political analysists could cite an incident of voter fraud in recent years that had a serious impact on State, congressional or presidential elections. Voter fraud has been fairly minimal and insignificant according to a report conducted by the Brennan Centre (5). We’ve also found that reports of voter fraud still persist in those States that have already implemented voter I.D laws, and that these laws have no visible effect to those rare incidences of voter fraud.
So what are we left with after looking into this matter? Well we’re left wondering what motivations do Republican officials and conservative groups have in pushing through these laws putting aside the false claims of rampant voter fraud. The answer is rather simple, it’s all about politics and partisanship.