As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it? – William M. “Boss” Tweed, c. 1871
History shows that for as long as the right to vote has existed, that right has been threatened. Thomas Nast’s caricature portraying “Boss” Tweed leaning against a pedestal on which stands “the Ballot” symbolizes a dark time in late nineteenth century America, where the “playing field” of politics was leveraged by party bosses and machine politics at the expense of the voters. Tammany Hall-era politics was defined by Tweed’s ability to manufacture votes and reap the substantial financial rewards.
Fast-forward to present day and election integrity remains a contemporary concern. Specifically, a trend toward some kind of voter Identification law has emerged. But, what should be a debate about preserving the integrity of the electoral system has been hijacked by the politics of division.
Facts, however, are a stubborn thing.
The “State” of Voter ID Laws
To date, 34 states have adopted some kind of voter ID law, which come in several different variations:
• In states that have adopted a “Strict” voter ID law, voters cannot cast a valid ballot without first presenting ID. If they cannot, voters are given a provisional ballot that are kept separate from the regular ballots. If the voter returns to election officials within a short period of time after the election and shows an acceptable form of identification, officials count the ballot. If they do not come back, officials do not count the ballot.
• Other states have enacted “Non-Strict” voter ID laws. Example of such provisions are states where voters are permitted to sign an affidavit attesting to their identity or poll workers may vouch for a voter’s identity if they know him or her. A common characteristic is that voters are not required to return with any kind of identification after voting.
• In states that require a “Photo” voter ID, voters must show an accepted ID with their photo at the polls. Depending on whether the state’s photo ID law is “strict” or not, voters that fail to provide a photo ID may be given a provisional ballot which will be counted if the voter provides the requisite photo ID within the applicable time frame.
• In “Non-Photo” voter ID states, there is a wide array of IDs that are acceptable for voting purposes, some of which do not include a photo of the voter.
Election Fraud Is Real
In 2005, American University’s bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform — co-chaired by President Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker — wrote:
The electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters. Photo IDs currently are needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check. Voting is equally important.
Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board that “flagrant examples” of voter fraud “have been documented throughout our nation’s history by respected historians and journalists” which “demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real, but that it could affect the outcome of a close election.”“negligible” rates of voter fraud documented by state boards of elections. For example, North Carolina, a state where voters favor voter ID laws more than 2-to-1, had an infinitesimal rate of fraud of 0.00174% in 2013. But such statistics are misleading given the severe under-enforcement and under-reporting by those same election boards.
For example, New York’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption found that election fraud complaints were hardly investigated, languishing for years without any action.
Recently, proponents of voter ID laws have found a champion in James O’Keefe and Project Veritas, an undercover project where “voters” surreptitiously filmed encounters on election day that they claim prove the need for voter ID. Activists claimed to be registered voters — including Attorney General Eric Holder — and poll workers, in turn, offered to hand these “impostors” ballots so they could vote. This is similar to the NYC Department of Investigation’s “sting” in New York City where investigators claimed to be deceased or otherwise ineligible voters.
O’Keefe’s exposure of the possibility of voter fraud in the 2012 New Hampshire Primary led to a probe by the state’s attorney general, and ultimately led to the passage of the state’s voter ID law over Governor John Lynch’s veto.
Voter ID Laws Do Not Reduce Turnout
The main argument against voter ID is that the requirements become a barrier to low-income citizens, disenfranchising the poor and reducing turnout on Election Day. Some have even gone as far as suggesting that voter ID laws are a tool of voter suppression. But, the empirical data disproves these assertions.
A study by the University of Missouri in 2008 found that voter turnout in Indiana’s first election after its voter ID law went into effect actually increased. A similar study of the Brennan Center concluded that “concerns about voter identification laws affecting turnout are much ado about nothing,” finding that such laws had no effect on turnout, even across racial/ethnic/socio-economic strata.
One reason these studies show no detrimental effect on turnout is that just about everyone is issued some form of government ID nowadays. An American University survey of voters in Maryland, Indiana, and Mississippi found that less than 0.5 percent of respondents had neither a photo ID nor citizenship documentation. Considering that proper identification is required in such everyday activities as buying alcohol and cigarettes or registering a vehicle and entering certain commercial buildings, one’s anecdotal observations would back up those findings.
Partisans may be entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. Spin control may work on the campaign trail and may inflame the passions of some voters one way or the other, but the case for voter Identification laws should be beyond the pale of partisanship because it is a position rooted in verifiable fact. And, the facts show that these laws are intended to protect voters from unsavory tactics by partisans looking for an edge on the competition at the expense of our fundamental right.