Former Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican earlier this year. Once largely silent about voter-ID laws, he has become a vocal proponent of the GOP-backed measures, which require voters in many states to show photo identification at the polls. Davis talked to National Journal about the issue. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Why do you think voter-ID laws are a good idea?
DAVIS Voter-ID laws are broadly acceptable to most Americans and even proved broadly acceptable to the Department of Justice. The controversy is one that’s been overhyped.
NJ You weren’t always so supportive. What changed?
DAVIS In the African-American political community, these laws have been something of a flash point—unfairly and inaccurately. I concede that as someone who’s not in office, who’s not an elected official, and who’s not subject to those political pressures, I can speak in a much more direct way.
NJ Many voter-ID laws have been passed by GOP-led legislatures or are backed by Republicans. Do you see any partisan design in the issue?
DAVIS The reality is that most of these laws are being passed in communities and environments that are honestly not politically closely contested. The opponents of voter-ID laws have done a fairly effective job politically of painting a certain picture, but the facts don’t line up with that picture.
NJ What about the argument that these laws suppress votes of Democratic-leaning groups, such as African-Americans and low-income people?
DAVIS I don’t think you can make a rigorous or sustained argument that voter-ID laws either have the intent or effect or suppressing African-American votes in a disproportionate way.
Given how ubiquitous photo IDs are in our society; given the fact that you can’t obtain entry into many buildings, including many government buildings in Washington, without an ID; given that you can’t get on a plane without an ID; given the fact that in many communities you can’t get a library card without an ID, there’s nothing unusual or burdensome about an ID requirement. It’s a staple of life. I don’t think that the case can be made that asking people to show an ID in one more walk of their life operates as some burden or some special strain.
We have attached responsibilities to the right to vote. It’s called registering; it’s called filling out forms; it’s called doing a change of address when you move. I see an ID as just one more responsibility. And, by the way, it’s a responsibility that most voters have long satisfied and already have in their possession.
NJ What do you think about the Pennsylvania court decision barring its ID law from going into effect this Election Day?
DAVIS I don’t know the details of the Pennsylvania voter-ID law. The test of a good voter-ID law in my mind is the following: Does it permit alternatives for that class of individuals who don’t drive or who are incapacitated? Is there a provision in place if you plain forget your ID or forget your license? Do you have the ability to cast a provisional ballot? All of us have left our wallet at home, especially when we’re in a hurry.
NJ There’s scant evidence of in-person voter fraud. Why fight a problem that doesn’t seem to be that widespread?
DAVIS Most people don’t walk into a bank with a fraudulent intent in mind. Most people walk into a bank to get money out of their own account, and they are exactly who they say they are. But yet banks routinely ask you for an ID, even if you’re someone who’s a regular customer. It doesn’t follow to me that because you don’t have a long, documented, verifiable trail of people trying to engage in misconduct that it’s somehow wrong to ask them for ID.
NJ Why do you think so many of these laws have been stopped from going into effect or tied up in court?
DAVIS It’s not surprising, given the political times we live in. The Democratic Party has made a strategic decision that they don’t like voter-ID laws. The Democratic Party has made a strategic decision that they wish to challenge these laws. And once a political party has made that decision, of course, you’re going to have people step forward and challenge them.
NJ Many people have evoked images of the civil-rights movement in expressing opposition to voter-ID laws.
DAVIS People do it to make a political point, because it’s easier to win an argument by changing the subject than plowing into the facts. It’s much easier using dramatic imagery. I wonder what individuals who raise the civil-rights analogy thought about Eric Holder’s Department of Justice preclearing the Alabama voter-ID law and the Virginia voter-ID law. Is there some suggestion that the Holder Department of Justice has some closet sympathy for voter suppression?
The critics of voter ID are trying to paint with a broad brush. Rather than attacking a few statutes which may be problematic, they’ve embarked on this broad campaign against voter-ID laws.
Originally appeared in print as Different Tune
This article appears in the October 6, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.