Everyone’s a Hypocrite on Voter IDs

The Right’s to blame for passing odious voter-ID requirements, but the Left has to stop exaggerating their effect.

People pass the signs telling of the requirement for voters to show an acceptable photo ID to vote as they head into the the Penndot Drivers License Center in Butler, Pa., on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012.
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Sept. 5, 2013, 2 a.m.

Not sur­pris­ingly, Bill Clin­ton had the best line. At the 50th an­niversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton last month, the former pres­id­ent said from the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mori­al: “A great demo­cracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an as­sault weapon.”

Clin­ton knew his audi­ence and how hot this is­sue is right now. Voter-ID laws are fa­cing leg­al chal­lenges all over the coun­try. And now the Obama Justice De­part­ment has gone to court to try and stop Texas from im­ple­ment­ing its voter-ID law. When the Demo­crat­ic-led ex­ec­ut­ive branch tries to undo the law of the na­tion’s second-most pop­u­lous state — and a red one at that — it is, as Clin­ton likes to say, a big deal.

And while It’s hard to ar­gue with his quip about as­sault weapons, the prob­lem is that the whole de­bate over voter-ID laws is more com­plic­ated than the Left and Right would like to ad­mit.

On the left, voter-ID laws are be­ing dis­missed as the second com­ing of Jim Crow. At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er in his less-than-nu­anced style likened them to the tools of se­greg­a­tion. On the right, they’re be­ing hailed as com­mon-sense meas­ures to pre­vent bal­lot fraud and keep elec­tions fair and hon­est without dis­crim­in­at­ing against any­one.

Both are wrong, al­though there’s no reas­on to en­gage in false equi­val­ence: The Right is more wrong than the Left.

First, voter-ID laws gen­er­ally rep­res­ent an an­swer in search of a prob­lem. There just isn’t much evid­ence of voter fraud. Any num­ber of reput­able ana­lyses sug­gest that bal­lot fraud of the kind where John Smith goes in­to a polling place and tries to vote three times is ex­tremely rare. Rick Hasen, a law pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Irvine) and one of the sages of Amer­ic­an vot­ing laws, hasn’t found a single elec­tion thrown by bal­lot fraud since 1980.

In 2007, The New York Times noted that a five-year ef­fort by the George W. Bush Justice De­part­ment led to only 86 con­vic­tions. That’s not noth­ing, but it’s min­is­cule com­pared with the tens of mil­lions of bal­lots cast dur­ing that time.

There’s much more po­ten­tial for elect­or­al fraud from people vot­ing in two states, say where they have a va­ca­tion home or are stu­dents, rather than people go­ing in­to a booth and pre­tend­ing to be someone that they are not — a prob­lem that voter-ID laws wouldn’t help stem. If the United States used a bio­met­ric ID card like the kind Amer­ica pro­motes in for­eign elec­tions, it’d be pos­sible to pre­vent that po­ten­tial for ab­use.

The rash of re­cent voter-ID laws are com­ing from states with Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors and le­gis­lat­ors, many of them tak­ing ad­vant­age of the re­cent Su­preme Court rul­ing on the Vot­ing Rights Act. Be­fore the rul­ing, the Justice De­part­ment’s “pre­clear­ance” pro­cess kept those laws at bay. Now states are ra­cing to pass these laws that seem to have the ef­fect of keep­ing Demo­crats from the polls.

North Car­o­lina has the harshest voter ID law. And it’s prob­ably no co­in­cid­ence that the bill also cut a week off early vot­ing in the state and elim­in­ated both same-day voter re­gis­tra­tion and preregis­tra­tion of 16- and 17-year-olds in the high schools.

Texas, which also went gonzo after the Su­preme Court rul­ing, has a voter-ID law that al­lows you to use a con­cealed-carry per­mit as ID but not a stu­dent ID.

Civil-rights groups have been apo­plect­ic about these laws, say­ing that they are dis­crim­in­at­ory. And they would seem to have a pretty good case, as there’s no fraud epi­dem­ic and those who would have the hard­est time com­ply­ing with the law are poor and minor­it­ies. That’s be­cause minor­it­ies and the poor are much less likely to have the kind of gov­ern­ment-is­sued photo IDs that some states re­quire. For in­stance, the Bren­nan Cen­ter at New York Uni­versity found that in the states with the most-re­strict­ive voter-ID laws found that 11 per­cent of eli­gible voters didn’t have a qual­i­fy­ing ID and get­ting one wasn’t easy. Of­fices were of­ten far away and their hours were spotty. In Alabama, al­most a quarter of the vot­ing-age cit­izens without ac­cess to a vehicle lived more than 10 miles from a gov­ern­ment of­fice that is­sued an ID. In oth­er words, the Left is right when they say this can be a real obstacle.

The prob­lem for the Left is that not all voter-ID laws are the same. Con­flat­ing them in­to one ugly mess is simplist­ic, even disin­genu­ous.

Con­sider how we got here. A 2008 Su­preme Court opin­ion writ­ten by the lib­er­al Justice John Paul Stevens up­held an In­di­ana voter-ID law, re­ject­ing the ar­gu­ments from the Left that such photo-ID laws were tan­tamount to dis­fran­chise­ment. The Court didn’t say that every voter-ID law would al­ways pass ju­di­cial muster, but it cer­tainly gave the green light to states — and many fol­lowed.

The Justice De­part­ment and civil-rights groups will ar­gue in court that the Texas-style voter-ID laws are dis­crim­in­at­ory un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion and the sec­tions of the Vot­ing Rights Act that are still stand­ing.

But the Left might be bet­ter off ac­know­ledging that not all voter-ID laws are oner­ous.

The pres­id­ent’s lib­er­al home state of Hawaii has one. In Louisi­ana, there’s one that’s stirred little con­tro­versy. That’s be­cause the best ones al­low a wide range of forms of iden­ti­fic­a­tion and, if that’s not avail­able, al­lows the per­son to sign an af­fi­davit stat­ing that they are who they say they are.

“This has be­come a very po­tent is­sue for the Left in terms of fun­drais­ing,” says Hasen, who has been crit­ic­al of re­cent harsh meas­ures such as North Car­o­lina’s while ac­know­ledging that oth­ers work bet­ter. In­deed, a 2005 re­port, fol­low­ing the Bush-Gore Flor­ida re­count, looked at the prob­lem of voter-ID laws. The pan­el, co­chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, con­cluded that voter IDs could be used well and wer­en’t ne­ces­sar­ily dis­crim­in­at­ory (al­though Carter him­self seems to have back­tracked; he took a swipe at voter-ID laws at the March an­niversary, too).

Robert Pas­tor, who was ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Com­mis­sion on Fed­er­al Elec­tion Re­form, says “it’s very sad” the way that both sides have hyped and ex­ag­ger­ated the voter-ID is­sue. The solu­tion, he says, is for Demo­crats to ac­cept that voter-ID laws are a reas­on­able tool and for the coun­try to move to­ward na­tion­al bio­met­ric cards.

Alas, that’s not likely to hap­pen any­time soon, and so states will keep fight­ing this battle and courts will keep lit­ig­at­ing it. The hurdles for bio­met­ic iden­ti­fic­a­tion, as with so many is­sues, are fin­an­cial and polit­ic­al. Fin­an­cially it’d be ex­pens­ive to out­fit all Amer­ic­ans with that kind of ID even if it would solve a host of prob­lems, not just in terms of voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion but also im­mig­ra­tion. But the price tag is high. A re­port from the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley) School of Law es­tim­ated that it would cost $40 bil­lion to get it star­ted and $3 bil­lion a year to main­tain. And the en­emies of that kind of sys­tem would kill it be­fore cards ever got in­to any­one’s wal­let. Between the ACLU on the left and the sov­er­eignty crowd on the right, it’d be shot down quick­er than you can say “Rand Paul.” Pas­tor ac­know­ledges that this “in­tense minor­ity” has veto power.

A vis­ion of a hap­pi­er fu­ture might have come in Oc­to­ber when Pres­id­ent Obama walked in­to his Chica­go polling place to cast an early bal­lot vote for his own elec­tion. Laughter erup­ted when the poll work­er asked for his ID, a re­quire­ment for early bal­lot­ing. “You’re right,” the pres­id­ent replied and told her to ig­nore the earli­er pic­ture without so much gray hair.

The best voter-ID rules, like those of Illinois, al­low people to present a wide vari­ety of IDs — in­clud­ing a paycheck and a util­ity bill — and make sure they can vote as eas­ily as the pres­id­ent did.

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