Voter ID Is Bad for Republicans, Too

The likelihood of fraud occurring here? Almost zero.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with requiring people to provide identification in order to vote. Most Americans support voter ID laws and possess the necessary ID -- a driver's license, say, or (if they happen to live in Texas) a gun license. The trouble, still unresolved by many states that have enacted these laws, is that not every citizen has easy access to such a document.

It's perhaps difficult for people living relatively orderly, prosperous lives to understand how a 21st-century American can lack appropriate ID or have difficulty obtaining it. But for many elderly and poor, and others besides, it's no mystery. Birth certificates are long lost or, in some instances, were never issued at all. Belongings have been destroyed by fire or left behind in a transient rush. Paperwork has disappeared. Public transportation is used in lieu of a car.

QuickTake Voting Rights

About 11 percent of eligible voters nationally lack the kind of government-issued photo identification that these laws require, according to a 2012 study by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, which opposes voter ID laws. A judge hearing a case contesting Texas's voter ID law noted that some rural Texans would have to travel more than 100 miles to obtain proper documents.

Supporters of such laws say they are needed to combat voter fraud. Yet the evidence of such in-person fraud is all but nonexistent. Justin Levitt, a constitutional law professor at Loyola University Law School, has examined news reports and government records dating to 2000, during which more than 1 billion federal, state and local ballots were cast. The total number of credible allegations of in-person voter fraud that he found -- not convictions, mind you, allegations -- was startling: 31. Nationwide. Social-science research supports the conclusion that such fraud is minuscule. Compared with absentee-ballot fraud, for example, in-person voter fraud would be an especially hapless way to attempt to steal an election. "Which is why," Levitt wrote, "it rarely happens."

So why the debate?

One answer is simple enough: Republicans, who are overwhelmingly responsible for passage of state voter ID laws, are having difficulty navigating the nation's changing demographics. (Voters who lack ID are disproportionately nonwhite and likely to support Democrats.) A loose-lipped Republican leader in Pennsylvania said in 2012 that such a law there would "allow" his party's presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, to win the state.

Thankfully, a court blocked implementation of its voter ID law before the election, and it was eventually struck down. But to the extent that voter ID laws, along with other unnecessary encumbrances, make voting more difficult, they do no favors to Republicans. Nor do the judges who enable such laws to take effect, as a panel of federal appeals court judges did last week when it reversed a lower court's injunction on Wisconsin's voter ID law. As many as 300,000 registered voters in the state lack a government-issued photo ID.

This Republican obsession with voter ID might be less objectionable -- and less toxic to the future of the party -- if more of the party's leaders showed they cared about making such ID free and easily obtainable, or if in-person fraud were a real problem. But they generally don't, and it isn't. A political party that is more eager to restrict votes than encourage them is a danger not only to the democratic system but also, in the long run, to itself.

--Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net