October 7, 2011

In “The Breakfast Club,” a geeky high school student played by Anthony Michael Hall says he procured a fake ID not to buy beer, but to vote. But are new photo ID laws in Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin really necessary to stop widespread fraud like that perpetrated by a John Hughes character? Or are photo ID laws just another conservative scheme to oppress young people and minorities and limit Democratic turnout? Let’s put aside what we think we know about the ballot box and find out.

1. We need state voter ID laws to prevent fraud.

Prosecutable cases of voter fraud are rare. For example, a 2005 statewide study in Ohio found four instances of ineligible persons voting or attempting to vote in 2002 and 2004, out of 9 million votes cast. An investigation of fraud allegations in Wisconsin in 2004 led to the prosecution of 0.0007 percent of voters. From 2002 to 2005, the Justice Department found, only five people were convicted for voting multiple times. In that same period, federal prosecutors convicted only 86 people for improper voting.

According to Barnard political scientist Lorraine Minnite, most instances of improper voting involve registration and eligibility, such as voters filling out registration forms incorrectly or a person with felony convictions attempting to register. Neither of those issues would be prevented by a state photo ID requirement. According to George Washington University law professor Spencer Overton, a former member of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, “a photo ID requirement would prevent over 1,000 legitimate votes (perhaps over 10,000 legitimate votes) for every single improper vote prevented.”

2. Requiring identification at the polls affects all voters equally.

In The Washington Post, Kansas Secretary of StateKris Kobach recently defended what he called the “reasonable” new photo ID requirements. “It’s absurd to suggest that anyone is ‘disenfranchised’ by such protective measures,” he wrote in July.

He’s wrong. State photo ID restrictions disproportionately affect African Americans, Latinos, young voters, people over 65 and people with disabilities. Advancement Project studies show that 11 percent of eligible voters, or about 21 million people, don’t have updated, state-issued photo IDs: 25 percent of African Americans, 15 percent of those earning less than $35,000, 18 percent of citizens age 65 or older and 20 percent of voters age 18 to 29.

The push for photo ID laws and other restrictions is largely championed by the GOP and conservative groups. Record rates of voter registration and turnout among young and minority voters in 2008 affected federal races across the nation, as about two-thirds of new voters registered as Democrats in the 29 states that record party affiliation. The 2010 midterms put more conservatives in office who want to combat this trend. The right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, drafted and promoted photo ID legislation that was introduced in more than 30 states.

3. The new laws are cheap for states and voters.

The Advancement Project’s report “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” shows that taxpayers will bear the costs of these measures — more than $20 million in North Carolina, for example, to educate voters and provide free IDs to those without them, as the state’s law requires. This hurts states that are facing big budget constraints. For voters, even if an ID is free, getting the documents to obtain it can be expensive and difficult.

Many states require at least four original forms of identification to obtain a photo ID — documents such as a certified birth certificate, marriage or divorce record, adoption record, a Social Security card, or naturalization papers. A birth certificate in Texas costs $22, a U.S. passport costs as much as $145, and naturalization papers can run up to $200. People born out of state who lack transportation, work multiple jobs, have disabilities, or are home-bound or poor can’t access or afford this paperwork.

Now that many states have reduced hours and locations of motor vehicle departments and other agencies because of budget cutbacks, getting an ID can be a battle. In Wisconsin, 25 percent of DMV offices are open one day a month or less, and fewer than half are open at least 20 hours a week. What can prospective voters who have to work or care for their children during these limited hours do but go without?

4. There’s no way to fight photo ID restrictions.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Indiana photo ID requirement in 2008, that law passed muster in part because the state provided some voters with free identification. New laws in states where employee or student IDs can’t be used to register to vote — such as Wisconsin, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina — are stricter.

Under the Voting Rights Act, states with a long history of voting discrimination, mainly in the South, must obtain the approval of the Justice Departmentor the D.C. District Court to change their voting practices. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s Indiana precedent, the Justice Department could reject new voter ID laws in South Carolina, Alabama and Texas. The department also enforces Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits any state from implementing a discriminatory voting practice. In Wisconsin — where 55 percent of African American men and 49 percent of African American women lack state identification — preliminary data indicate that the photo ID law could be racially discriminatory. If the Justice Department agrees, it could stop the law’s implementation.

5. Perpetrators of voting fraud don’t face serious legal consequences.

Both federal and state laws include stiff fines and imprisonment for voter fraud. Under federal law, perpetrators face up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000 for each act of fraud. In Alabama, voter fraud is punishable by up to two years in prison and a $2,000 fine. In Wisconsin, the punishment is up to 31 / 2 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Missouri imposes a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. And in Texas, the maximum prison sentence is 10 years.

Kimberly Prude of Wisconsin spent more than a year in jail after being convicted of voting while on probation, which she attributes to her confusion over her eligibility. Usman Ali, a Pakistani, was deported after improperly filling out a voter registration card while renewing his driver’s license in Florida, where he had lived legally for more than 10 years. How can anyone suggest that the authorities aren’t on top of voter fraud — or that new ID laws aren’t motivated by politics?

Judith Browne Dianis, a lawyer, is co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization focusing on issues of democracy and race.

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