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How Voter ID Laws Unfairly Burden Voters And Skew The Electorate

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Cross-posted at Project Vote's Voting Matters Blog

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

By Erin Ferns

With little more than two months left before Election Day, prospective voters are rushing to get registered. And like the way that slugs thrive in moist weather, voter suppression attacks spring up around large-scale voter registration drives. Partisan attempts to shape the electorate, in effect choosing the voters rather than voters choosing their own representatives, seek to impose barriers to voter participation by eligible citizens rather than creating a system that works to facilitate the foundational right of American democracy. Voter ID laws are a particularly favorite weapon in the arsenal of partisans seeking to choose their own voters to the exclusion of other eligible citizens. More than 25 states introduced voter ID bills this year and at least nine have such laws in place for this November's election despite scant evidence of voter impersonation, the ill it is supposed to stop.

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The reality of the kind of detrimental election reforms typified by Voter ID laws is that they place the burden for ensuring free and fair elections squarely upon the voter, rather than upon the government, despite the fact that the government controls every aspect of the electoral process, from voter registration to counting the ballots. In effect, these laws concentrate on the possible wrong-doing of individual voters to the exclusion of the myriad barriers that prevent significant numbers of voters from underrepresented population groups from participation in the electoral process, thus helping to skew the electorate toward being older, whiter, and more affluent than America's citizenry as a whole.  Laws that concentrate on the voter rather than the system almost without exception narrow the ability of voters to exercise their democratic right to vote, which falls especially hard upon already disadvantaged Americans, as illustrated by a concerned Arizona citizen in a local publication as well as a Wisconsin editorial this week.

"I believe people heard that no one should vote who is not a citizens," said Kathryn Kozak, referring to Arizona's voter ID requirement that exceeds federal mandates in a letter to the Arizona Daily Sun on Sunday. "They didn't necessarily think about what this would mean for those people who were citizens."

Kozak was shocked to learn that her sample ballot would no longer suffice as proof of identity when casting a ballot in the state's Sept. 2 primary election. Like more than 21 million Americans, she does not have valid proof of identity: "My problem is that I use my middle name on my driver's license, but my legal name includes my first name. The election office says I should still be able to vote, but you never know what is going to happen at the polls.

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"This voter ID law is making it difficult for me and others in my situation to vote," she wrote.

As Kozak pointed out, many voters believe voter ID laws are a valid way of preventing illegal voting and have not considered the impact of such "preventive" measures on eligible citizens. Unsympathetic to her challenge of the state's law that exceeds federal mandate, a few readers of her story in the Arizona Daily Sun commented that anyone who wants to vote would go through the trouble of obtaining valid ID. However, cost, time and high mobility rates make obtaining valid ID a troublesome feat for millions of Americans who already face obstacles to participation in the electoral process.

Frankly, it is not as if the United States has enviable voter participation rates. In our 2007 report, Representational Bias in the 2006 Electorate, a majority (52%) of eligible Americans did not vote. Overrepresented in this segment of the electorate were young people, minorities and low income Americans - all highly mobile communities who are profoundly affected by voter ID requirements. And while people point to the convenient excuse of "voter apathy" to explain non-participation, the reality is that our study showed that Americans, once registered, turn out at a rate of a 71 percent.

That type of turnout would be reduced in states that impose voter ID requirements since more than 21 million U.S. citizens do not have current, valid photographic proof of ID, according to a poll by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. "Valid" ID in most cases must reflect the current address as listed in the voter's registration records. In 2006, more than four in 10 Americans reported having lived at their current address for less than five years.

Furthermore, a 2006 study commissioned by the Election Assistance Commission found a 2.9% decrease in turnout overall in states that require photo ID and a 2.7% decrease in states that required documentary ID compared to states that require voters to give their names, according to a 2007 Project Vote report.  

Ultimately, voter ID laws inhibit voters who already face barriers such as high mobility rates that require them to update voter registration and identification information. In order to help facilitate the voting rights of these voters and maintain the integrity of elections by prohibiting illegal voting, the responsibility needs to not only be put on the voter who must show up and vote, but also on the design of the election system as a whole.

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The Wisconsin publication, La Crosse Tribune makes just this point in a recent editorial cautioning against the adoption of voter ID laws in the wake of stories about voter registration workers getting caught defrauding their employer and the state by attempting to get paid for submitting false voter registration forms. Indeed, the editors applauded the state's new voter registration system, touting it as a more efficient method of keeping ineligible voters off the rolls.

"While some people argue that the case underscores the need for a photo ID requirement before one is allowed to vote, that would be an over-reaction that could end up disenfranchising older and low-income voters who lack such identification."

The editorial continues: "It would make more sense to use the new federally mandated voter registration systems [Help America Vote Act-required voter list maintenance procedures is what they mean. -ed] to screen for nonqualified voters - rather than risk disenfranchising large numbers of people with a photo ID program."

In a democracy with more than 200 million eligible citizens, the burden of ensuring free and fair elections cannot be born solely by the individual voter. The government, which controls all aspects of elections and therefore the means by which Americans exercise their foundational democratic right, must also work to create an electoral system that lowers barriers to participation and ensures the efficient implementation of procedures that allow all eligible citizens to register, cast a ballot, and have that ballot counted.

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