Midterm elections are approaching and Swarthmore’s campus is alive with political conversation. One such conversation relates to the issue of voter identification laws: some Swarthmore students I’ve spoken to object to these laws on the assumption that they discriminate against poor and minority voters who may not have the wherewithal to acquire identification. Other skeptics refer to a lack of voter fraud and the laws’ supposed pointlessness. Let’s investigate whether these laws are actually discriminatory, whether voter fraud is a legitimate enough concern to merit their implementation, and how they can be improved.
The claim that minority voters are disenfranchised by ID requirements is not supported by turnout data. According to the Census Bureau, 66.2 percent of blacks voted nationwide in the 2012 presidential election, compared to 64.1 percent of whites. In some states, black turnout surpassed white turnout by more than 10 percent. In many, black turnout was substantially higher than in 2008. In Mississippi — a state that requires a photo ID at the polls — 2012 black turnout totaled at 82.4 percent, compared to 2008’s 72.9 percent. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports the following voting records in eleven states with voter ID laws: in Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Michigan and Florida, black turnout was higher than that of whites; in Louisiana, Kansas, South Dakota and New Hampshire, black-white ratios were nearly identical. Only in Hawaii and Idaho did white turnout exceed that of blacks. The NCSL also notes that national Hispanic turnout in 2012 was higher than in 2008 and in 2004. In Georgia, Florida and New Hampshire, the white-Hispanic turnout gap was smaller than the national average; in Idaho, Michigan, Hawaii, Tennessee and Indiana, the gap was approximately the same as the national average. If voter ID laws really are designed to suppress minority voters, they fail.
The laws’ critics often argue that US election fraud is negligible and that identification requirements address a nonexistent problem. Although it is true that, as a general matter, voter fraud is rarely a major concern, this is not always the case. Prevalence of voter fraud during the close 1960 presidential election — John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon — is still discussed by historians. Adding or omitting just a few thousand votes in the key states of Illinois and Texas would have swung the election one way or the other. The political machines of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Daley heavily influenced voting in areas near the Mexican border and in Chicago. Researchers have exposed concrete instances of voter fraud in Texas, where certain counties and precincts reported more votes than they had registered voters, the fake excess going to Kennedy. Three Chicago election overseers served prison time for manipulation of ballots and over 600 officials were suspected of illicit activity during the election. Illinois Democrats added counterfeit votes of dead citizens to the total count, including almost 60 dead voters attributed to one residence. Republican tallies in the state’s southern regions may have been embellished in favor of Nixon. The election of 1960 featured the most substantiated allegations of voter fraud in recent history, but there have been causes for investigation in other contests as well — and not on just the presidential level.
The most compelling objection to voter ID laws is one of logistics. If everybody had identification, there would be no controversy. In reality, some low-income citizens may have trouble acquiring identification, even if it is free, because they are not close to a state bureau or do not have the free time to travel to one and engage in the bureaucratic process. However, it is possible to address this issue by adjusting rather than abandoning the laws. In 2005, former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker released an analysis of the voter ID debate that pays particular attention to impoverished voters. The authors agree on the following solution: “We [offer] a proposal to bridge the partisan divide by suggesting a uniform voter photo ID, based on the federal Real ID Act of 2005, to be phased in over five years. To help with the transition, states would provide free voter photo ID cards for eligible citizens; mobile units would be sent out to provide the IDs and register voters.” Instead of requiring disadvantaged voters to come to an office, Carter and Baker propose bringing the IDs to them: vehicles equipped with the necessary equipment would go through various towns and offer an opportunity to obtain identification free of charge. If low-income citizens can’t get IDs, it is the bipartisan responsibility of legislators to include provisions tackling that problem. The best course of action is not to discard voter ID laws because they aren’t perfect but rather to modify them to account for underprivileged parts of the electorate.
Razor-thin elections can come down to a few hundred votes. The election of 2000 was determined by just 537. It would have only taken a few tweaked ballots in the Florida tally to swing the election Republican or Democrat. It is essential that every measure be taken to eliminate fraud so that the will of the majority, especially a small majority, can be heard clearly. Every time a false vote is counted, it disenfranchises a citizen. Voting, after all, defines civic life in the United States; it is an American’s most fundamental political act, and it is the task of our government to ensure that the voting process is as smooth and faultless as possible. Voter ID laws may not be the decisive factor in election oversight, but they can help to standardize local and state records, limit duplicate and cross-state voting, and make it harder to add imaginary citizens to the count. I do not passionately advocate these laws or feel that they are an indispensable addition to the democratic process. But I do believe that, if implemented fairly and properly, they can strengthen our republic.