Democrats embrace adding photos to Social Security cards

As Republicans push for new voting restrictions around the country, a handful of Democrats have coalesced around an impromptu idea: placing a photo on Social Security cards.

Former U.N. ambassador and civil rights activist Andrew Young — who chairs a nonpartisan voting rights group called Why Tuesday? — buttonholed President Obama and two of his predecessors in Texas this week in an effort to win their support for the concept. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter endorsed the idea, while the White House declined to comment.

“It’s just an idea whose time may have come,” said Young, a former Atlanta mayor who was in Austin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library. “What we’re saying is, everybody’s got a Social Security card. But with all of this identity theft going on, it’s a good idea to have your picture on it.”

The proposal drew praise from some election experts but also prompted immediate concerns on both sides of the political spectrum — highlighting the controversy that still surrounds voting rights issues.

Some voter advocates said requiring such cards could still put poorer Americans at a disadvantage, while conservatives such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) argued that it could pave the way for a new form of national ID.

Former president Bill Clinton praises Lyndon B. Johnson's presidential leadership at the Civil Rights Summit, which marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (LBJ Presidential Library)

“This is a really bad idea,” Paul said in a statement. “The Social Security card is only supposed to be used for Social Security benefits. This idea would make it easy for the federal government to convert the Social Security card into a national identification card.”

Eight states have a strict photo ID requirement, while eight others have more lenient rules asking for some form of photo identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since the beginning of last year, nine states have adopted new voting restrictions.

Clinton, who received a laminated Social Security card with his photo on it from Young on Wednesday, told the crowd in Austin that the idea could prove popular because all U.S. citizens have a Social Security card.

“The idea behind this agreement is to find a way forward that eliminates error and makes the best possible decision that we can all live with,” Clinton said. “It is not to paralyze and divide a country with significant challenges.”

Young, who said the card could be used to board planes, cash checks and for other identification purposes, had been working on the idea with advisers such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman J. Ornstein for about a year. But he said he decided last week to make his pitch during the civil rights gathering, and sent a card with Obama’s photo on it to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School who served as senior research director for the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, said the proposal would address the “socioeconomic bias” inherent in requiring voters to provide either a driver’s license or a passport as a form of ID.

“You want to make to the process as easy as possible for people who are likely to turn out,” he said. “This is one way to do it.”

Lynda Johnson Robb, Johnson’s daughter, also received a mock ID card from Young at the ceremony honoring her father.

“That’s exactly what Daddy wanted. He wanted everybody to vote, and wanted everybody to be able to vote,” Robb said, adding: “I have to tell to tell you I love it. I was thinking of seeing if I could get on the plane with it.”

Young’s plan would face serious political and logistical hurdles.

In an interview Thursday, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon who helps oversee Social Security as a senior member on the House Ways and Means Committee, said the proposal gives him pause for security reasons, noting the persistent problem of data theft.

“I’m very much concerned about that,” he said. “There must be a better way. I think we should open up the political process and let everybody in.”

Dale Ho, who directs the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said getting a paper Social Security card is already difficult for many people. He said one ACLU plaintiff had to take an hour-long bus ride to obtain the hospital records he needed to get the card.

“It’s not as easy for people on the margins of society as for middle-class folks,” Ho said.

Tumulty reported from Austin.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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