The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why arguments for Voter ID laws don’t add up

Early voting takes place at the Board of Elections office, in Wilmington, N.C. Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014. (Alan Cradick/AP Photo/The Star-News)
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Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, makes the argument in Politico this week that voter ID laws hardly cause the harm their critics claim (hat tip to Jonathan Chait, who has written a thorough response to Lowry here). He questions conflicting research on whether these laws depress minority voter turnout. He disputes Ruth Bader Ginsburg's assessment that Texas' voter ID law — cleared last weekend by the Supreme Court — is "purposefully discriminatory."

And he argues that voter ID laws don't have much impact on people who bother to show up and vote anyway. Few of them actually have their ballots thrown out when it turns out they don't have the right ID required by law:

According to the GAO, in Kansas in 2012, 1,115,281 ballots were cast. There were 38,865 provisional ballots, and of these, 838 were cast for voter ID reasons.
In Tennessee, 2,480,182 ballots were cast. There were 7,089 provisional ballots and of these, 673 were cast for voter ID reasons.
In both states, about 30 percent of these voter ID-related provisional ballots were ultimately accepted. That means in Kansas and Tennessee, altogether about 1,000 ballots weren’t counted (and perhaps many of them for good reason), out of roughly 3.5 million cast. There you have it ladies and gentlemen, voter suppression! It is of such stuff that Jim Crow was made.

What stands out about this argument is the idea that any disenfranchisement would be OK, when a central rationale for voter ID laws in the first place is that any voter fraud is not.

Researchers have repeatedly documented that voter fraud — especially of the kind that might be caught by ID laws — is exceptionally rare. The supporters of ID laws don't always dispute this. But they often say, as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker does here, that the scale of fraudulent voting is irrelevant:

It doesn't matter if there's one, 100, or 1,000. Amongst us, who would be that one person who would like to have our vote canceled out by a vote that was cast illegally?

Here is Pat Mullins, the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, on the same topic:

Even one instance of fraud is too many.

Here is avariation on the theme by Dianna Duran, who is running for re-election as Secretary of State of New Mexico:

One case of voter fraud, any time one person who should not be voting is voting . . that is one case too many.

And here's an Alaska lawmaker. And Kansas' secretary of state. And an older statement from the California Republican Party.

If you're absolutist about elections and feel that a single case of voter fraud averted by ID laws justifies their existence, then it doesn't add up to also argue that any number of people disenfranchised by the creation of those laws is just the cost of protecting democracy.