We have always known that some forms of voter fraud exist. We have heard about dead people and dogs voting. We wonder about rigged voting machines. So we nod in recognition and approval when we hear that 34 states have or are in the process of changing electoral laws to prevent fraud.
We are told that the integrity of our elections depends on requiring a government-issued photo ID as a prerequisite to voting at the polls. And we tell pollsters with little or no reservation that we support photo ID laws. We use photo IDs for everything in this country from boarding a plane to buying beer, so it is altogether natural that we should also use them to vote, right? Actually, it's not.
The first thing we need to understand is that having laws requiring a government-issued ID can only prevent in-person voter impersonation — when someone shows up at a particular precinct claiming to be someone else also registered in that same precinct. Studies show that this type of fraud is rare to non-existent. This may be because there are already very clear laws with very severe consequences for voting fraud in the books, as well there should be. Under federal law, voter impersonation is punishable by up to five years in prison and $10,000 fines.
Out of the 300 million votes cast between 2002 and 2007, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for voter fraud, and many of the cases involved immigrants and former felons who were simply unaware of their ineligibility or they involved registration errors. And in the state of Missouri, according to the Secretary of State Executive Summary of the 2008 Elections, "As in previous elections, no instances of voter impersonation fraud were reported to the Secretary of State's Office."
Of course we all want integrity in our elections, but if there is little to no reliable evidence of in-person impersonation fraud in the United States, what is the point of proposing a solution? To repeat, the only problem that a voter ID requirement could possibly fix has not been shown to exist. Why are state legislatures spending a lot of time, effort and money to enact photo ID laws, while decrying voter fraud and claiming that photo ID will protect the sanctity of the ballot from fraudulent voters?
Who is likely to be disenfranchised? Not most of us who have photo identification in the form of a valid driver's license. But some people are less likely to have a driver's license because they do not own a car. These include the poor, especially African American and Hispanic citizens in urban areas, the elderly whose licenses may have lapsed, people with disabilities and the young such as college students who have been able to vote with student IDs in the past and whose licenses may originate in the district where they grew up instead of where they attend school and are eligible to vote. Most of these groups tend to vote Democratic.
According to the Brennan Center, as many as one in 10 voters — 21 million Americans — do not have a government-issued photo ID such as a driver's license. In Missouri, it was estimated by the Secretary of State Office that there were some 250,000 registered voters who did not have a state-issued photo ID in 2010.
Certainly many of those would be able to acquire the necessary photo ID, but a conservative estimate is that at least 5 million eligible voters will find it significantly harder to cast ballots in 2012, a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections. The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012, 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
An alternative photo ID would qualify citizens without driver's licenses to vote. To avoid the charge that it would cost money to get an alternative ID, proponents of such laws have generally made free alternative photo IDs part of the legislative package.
However, voters would still need supporting documentation such as a certified birth certificate, a passport or naturalization papers to get that free photo ID from their state. Many people do not have such documents in their possession, and it will cost money and time to acquire such documentation. Most people will not start worrying about voting until it is too late to collect the necessary documents, certainly for the 2012 election.The complications of finding such documents and paying for them will discourage many others.
We can all agree that voting is fundamental to a functioning democracy. Do we really want to make it more difficult for Americans to vote when the United States continues to turn out less than two thirds of its eligible citizens in presidential elections and less than half in midterm elections? We should be making it as easy as possible to vote instead of placing barriers on the path to the voting booth. Government photo ID legislation is just such an obstacle.
Aline Kultgen and Linda Kaiser are co-chairs of the Civil Liberties Committee for the League of Women Voters for Columbia and Boone County.