Everything you need to know about Bill Clinton’s Social Security ID card proposal. And why it won’t work.

Updated at 4:15 p.m.

On Wednesday at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas, former President Bill Clinton mentioned the possibility of turning Social Security cards into photo IDs as a way of counteracting voter suppression. It sparked immediate reaction from the left and the right -- it's the thread of an idea that has provoked controversy many times over the past decade.

Here's some context that explains how photo IDs fit into a conversation of civil rights, and why it's so controversial.


Former President Bill Clinton speaks during the Civil Rights Summit on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Austin, Texas. Clinton used the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act to criticize efforts in several states to restrict voting, saying they threaten to roll back half a century of progress. (AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

So, why are people talking about putting photos on Social Security cards? I don't even know where mine is, so what's the point of putting my face on it?

Right now in Austin, Texas, political leaders and civil rights icons are confabbing at the LBJ presidential library, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, it's legislation that passed the following year -- the Voting Rights Act -- that has driven much of the conversation at the gathering. Former Atlanta Mayor and Congressman Andrew Young were the first people to mention Social Security cards with photos, in the context of the increasing number of photo ID laws being passed around the country. "Last year, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and one major repercussion is the increased likelihood of the enactment of photo identification laws in states across the country," he said. "I've said in the past that I’m not against photo identification, but only as long as the cards are free and easily accessible. Providing eligible voters the ability to obtain a photo on a Social Security Card eliminates any genuine concern. ....It is our obligation to make sure that every citizen has the ability to obtain a government-issued photo ID and the Social Security Administration is ideal for making that happen effectively and efficiently."

Young said President Obama should sign an executive order to update social security cards with photos. Later that day, Clinton also mentioned Social Security cards with photos. As Karen Tumulty reported, "Clinton did not go so far as to urge executive action. However, he said, putting photos on Social Security cards would represent 'a way forward that eliminates error,' without having to 'paralyze and divide a country with significant challenges.'”

Wait, what happened to the Voting Rights Act last year?

In June 2013, the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 4 lays out the definitions for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of voting issues to get any changes made to their voting laws approved by the Justice Department. Without Section 4, there is no rubric for how the Justice Department should scrutinize state electoral policy, so there is a lot more freedom for states to enact laws like tightened voter ID. The Supreme Court argued that “things have changed dramatically" since 1965, and the formula for pre-clearance is “based on decades-old data." Congress is allowed to amend Section 4, but until then, the Justice Department has limited leeway in proactively responding to problematic changes to voting laws in the states. An amendment to the Voting Rights Act has been proposed in both houses of Congress, although it's unclear whether it will be able to pass.

Where do voter ID laws fit into all this?

The year before Section 4 was struck down, the Justice Department had invalidated redistricting plans they found discriminatory in Texas, as well as halting the state's plans to enact a restrictive voter ID law. Months after Shelby, Texas passed a new voter ID law. As this map from the New Yorker shows, many states that would have faced strict scrutiny under Section 5 have passed voter ID laws in the past year. The state legislatures passing these laws are controlled by Republicans. The argument for passing the laws is combating voter fraud, a problem with little significant data to back up its seriousness but ample anecdotal evidence that has been deployed at dozens of state capitals around the country.

Source: The New Yorker
Source: The New Yorker

Voter-ID laws aren't an entirely new phenomenon. The first voter-ID law was passed by the Indiana state legislature in 2006. It was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008. However, the pace has definitely picked up since 2012, and now 34 states require photo identification before allowing people to vote. Six states previously covered in the Voting Rights Act have among the most strict voter ID laws in the country.


Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Why do people think the voter ID laws are restricting the vote?

Civil rights advocates contend that voter ID laws affect minorities, low-income and elderly people -- these are the populations least likely to have a form of photo identification, and the least likely to have the time to register for photo identification because of demanding jobs and responsibilities. According to research by the Brennan Center for Justice, about 11 percent of the voting-age public doesn't have a photo ID. However, it's not clear how many of these people would have been turned away from the polls -- they may be a population already disinclined to be politically active.

An exceptionally small number of citizens with college degrees or above poverty-level incomes lack photo identification.

Many Democrats argue that these laws -- passed in the name of voter fraud prevention -- target Democratic voters. Minorities and low-income groups traditionally vote for Democratic candidates.

However, there are cases of Republican voters being caught off-guard by voter-ID requirements too. In 2012, Ryan Reilly interviewed a number of "super voters" in Pennsylvania who had voted in every single election for the past 50 years. The state, which passed a voter ID law in 2011, keeps a "Voter Hall of Fame" which highlights the 21,000 people who voted in 50 consecutive general elections. As Reilly noted, "of the 5,923 of them who are currently registered voters, 1,384 of them either have no valid state ID or have an ID which expired before Nov. 6, 2011, which would make it invalid at the polls under the state's voter ID law." A state judge struck down the law in January 2014.

Photo identification often costs money, which led Attorney General Eric Holder to call the laws “poll taxes" in 2012.

On the other hand, stopping voter fraud is good, right?

Yes. But there's little evidence that proves it's a problem severe enough for the response it has inspired. A 2012 study conducted by investigative nonprofit News21 found 10 cases of voter impersonation in the United States since 2000. Other types of voter fraud happen most frequently with absentee voting and voter ID laws wouldn't affect these cases. Many of the cases involve clerical errors on the part of election workers.

Many supporters of voter ID laws are pointing to a recent report released in North Carolina that shows 765 residents with the same name, birthday, and last four Social Security number digits with voters in other states cast ballots in 2012. The state Board of Elections hasn't done enough research to definitively determine whether error or fraud is the culprit, but many news outlets have reported the numbers, which will definitely be mentioned when anyone disputes the necessity of North Carolina's voter ID law.

Ok, back to these Social Security cards. Has an idea like this come up before?

The Social Security card proposal is a new version of an idea that's been around for awhile. Nicole Austin-Hillery, the director of the Brennan Center's D.C. office says she never had heard of photo social security cards connected explicitly with voting rights until President Clinton mentioned it yesterday. However, the idea of a general national ID card has been floating around for over a decade. During failed health-reform talks in 1993, the Clinton Administration proposed a national "Health Security Card." Oracle CEO Larry Ellison offered to donate technology for national ID cards in 2001, but the idea died after many congressional hearings. The 9/11 Commission recommended that Congress legislate a national ID card. In 2010, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation that would have updated social security cards, jumping off of the national security discussion started by the 2001 terrorist attacks and a more recent push to curtail illegal immigration. “We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. Each card’s unique biometric identifier would be stored only on the card; no government database would house everyone’s information,” they said, according to Wired. “The cards would not contain any private information, medical information or tracking devices. The card would be a high-tech version of the Social Security card that citizens already have.” In 2013, legislators from both parties objected to a proposal to expand Homeland Security's database of residents' photo identification and biographical information, saying it came dangerously close to a national ID system.

Although national ID card debates have been most visible in regards to national security and immigration reform, many people have mentioned how national ID could simplify elections. Robert Kuttner at the American Prospect wrote in 2004, "In America, millions of volunteer hours and hundreds of millions of dollars go into the needless process of registering voters -- time and money that could go toward political activism and education. So a national ID card, with proper safeguards, would make America more democratic, not less." Kevin Drum wrote at Mother Jones in 2012, "With a national ID card, voter registration—whose only purpose is to ensure that you're eligible to vote—is a thing of the past. Just show your ID, which confirms that you're 18 and a citizen, and you get to vote. If you've moved, all you need is your ID along with evidence of your new address. If states want to prevent, say, felons from voting, it's up to them to make lists of ineligible voters for poll workers. But the burden is on them."

In 2012, David Frum asked, "Why can't we have a system of personal identification that is universal and reliable? Modern technology enables the design of just such a card while also protecting and even enhancing personal privacy."

In February 2013, the Washington Post editorial board wrote, "A phased-in, reliable ID might have other benefits — for instance, to safeguard voting. That should satisfy Republicans who insist that IDs prevent fraud at the ballot, as well as Democrats who believe Republicans want to suppress voting."

So, what have people thought about these previous national ID card ideas?

They haven't been very popular. Civil libertarians see it as a breach of privacy, and many civil rights advocates still see it as a burden for voters. Last year Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), for many the patron saint of civil liberties,  introduced a National ID Card Amendment, or the Protect Our Privacy Act, as part of the Senate's immigration reform bill. The amendment would prohibit the creation of any national identification card. He said at the time, "a National ID card violates our right to privacy by helping to consolidate data and facilitate the government in the tracking of individuals. President Ronald Reagan opposed this idea, as did President Bill Clinton. They believed, as I do, that American citizens should not be forced to carry around a National Identification Card as a condition of citizenship, because the card offends any reasonable basic concept of freedom.  While identifying and documenting immigrants is necessary for proper reform, implementing a mandatory identification registry for all citizens is not."

When the American Civil Liberties Union wrote about national ID cards in 2003, they were afraid such a system could lead to increased discrimination. "Failure to carry a national I.D. card would likely come to be viewed as a reason for search, detention or arrest of minorities," they wrote. "The stigma and humiliation of constantly having to prove that they are Americans or legal immigrants would weigh heavily on such groups."

Those in favor of a national ID for voting purposes have a ready response for civil libertarians. Adam Cohen, a professor at Yale Law, wrote in 2012 that national ID cards "should not replace state voter IDs — it should simply be an alternative. That way, people who currently have ID that allows them to vote would not have to jump through a new hoop. And national voter ID should not become a mandatory national ID card — something civil libertarians rightly oppose for having police-state overtones. It should be strictly optional."

Wendy Weiser, head of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, says the Center is "not against all voter ID laws, only those that require IDs many people don’t have.”  The Center has not had time to research the Social Security card proposal, but Hillery is initially skeptical of how effective it could be. "People don't carry around their Social Security card. Before I went to college, I couldn't even tell you where my social security card was!" She still thinks that loosening voter ID requirements is the best option to ensure voting rights, not expanding access to photo ID.

Long story short, Clinton and Young are jumping into a long and contentious debate that has opposition on both sides of the party. Based on past national ID card fights, it could take a long time to drum up support for his idea.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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