Over the past 12 years, Americans have cast hundreds of millions of votes in local, state and national elections. Did you know that in this same time period there have been only 10 alleged cases of in-person voter impersonation? This might surprise you if you have followed the recent flurry of legislative activity to require voters to present state-issued I.D. cards when casting their ballots. Since 2010, more than 30 states have considered more restrictive rules for when and how people can vote.
Litigation is now going on at the state and federal level to challenge some of these new rules. Cases are expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court before the November election. In Minnesota voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would require a state-issued photo I.D. with a current address in order to vote.
Advocates of the new laws claim that voter fraud is widespread and that tougher restrictions will help improve the validity of the electoral process. But the specific type of fraud addressed by the new I.D. laws, in-person voter impersonation, is virtually nonexistent. In supporting the new laws, the Republican National Lawyers Association cites 375 cases of election fraud. News21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative reporting project, examined these cases and found that only 33 resulted in convictions or guilty pleas and none involved in-person voter impersonation. It is simply not worth the risk (up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine) to cast one fraudulent vote. Electoral fraud of other kinds is much more common: absentee ballot fraud and the deliberate miscounting of ballots, for instance. The current wave of voter I.D. laws does not address these legitimate concerns.
It is commonly believed that “everyone already has a state-issued I.D.” But research indicates there are millions of eligible voters who do not possess the requisite form of identification in states that have passed more restrictive voter I.D. laws. In Pennsylvania more than 750,000 people, 9.2 percent of the state’s voters; in Wisconsin more than 300,000 registered voters; in Texas 8 percent of white voters and 25 percent of black voters. Not having an I.D. card is often related to age, race and economic status.
Legal precedent requires states to offer free I.D. cards for voting, but other legal documents like certified birth certificates or marriage licenses—which cost between $8 and $25—are usually required to obtain the I.D. cards. The notorious poll tax prohibited by the 24th Amendment cost only $10.64 in current dollars, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has referred to voter I.D. laws as “poll taxes.” In late August a federal court struck down the Texas voter I.D. law for imposing “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.” In some states, the voter I.D. must include a current address. This can create difficulties for students, military personnel, elderly in nursing homes and those who are homeless. Where such laws have withstood legal challenges, states should enact a “grace period” to allow adequate time for citizens to obtain the proper identification.
Catholic social teaching strongly emphasizes that all people of goodwill should participate in civic life and political processes to promote the common good. In Minnesota a faith-based community organization called Isaiah has built a coalition of Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and African-American religious groups to oppose the voter I.D. amendment. The collaboration is inspired by a shared commitment to “the least of our brothers and sisters,” who are disproportionately affected by the new laws.
There are real threats to electoral integrity that should be studied and addressed. Measures are necessary to reduce fraudulent absentee ballots. Polling stations should be carefully monitored so that voters are not unfairly turned away without an opportunity to cast even a provisional ballot. There should be more uniform electoral processes across the 13,000 voting precincts in the United States; Election Day should be a mandatory national holiday to make it easier for people to vote; and there should be a federal constitutional amendment to protect the right to vote for all citizens.
In Minnesota, former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Democrat, and the former governor of the state, Arne Carlson, a Republican, have teamed up to oppose amending their state’s constitution to require voter I.D. They insist that “election laws be designed in a bipartisan fashion,” since no single party should be allowed to create rules for an electoral advantage. We should honor the hard-fought battles for women’s suffrage and civil rights by returning “to a legislative process that studies a problem first and then creates a sensible and affordable bipartisan solution,” as Mondale and Carlson wisely suggest. Reform efforts should bolster, not restrict, democratic participation.