AFLURRY OF activity in state legislatures across the country is threatening to make it more difficult for people to vote. These Republican-sponsored measures move the nation in the wrong direction.
The bills generally take two forms: stringent new requirements for the kind of IDs voters must show and restrictions on early voting. Both would suppress turnout in a nation that already fails to turn out a majority of its eligible voting population.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) recently vetoed his state’s ID bill, which he wrote would “disenfranchise certain classes of persons.” But Kansas, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin have approved ID requirements. The argument in favor is that they will reduce election fraud, which proponents contend is a cancer afflicting the nation’s ballot boxes.
According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, the accumulated rate of voter fraud in the few states with documented cases is tiny — amounting to overall rates of 0.0003 percent in Missouri, 0.0002 percent in New Jersey and 0.000009 percent in New York. That could hardly be defined as pervasive illegal activity among voters. In a recent interview, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) failed to cite one conviction resulting from some 221 allegations of fraud statewide.
Compare the minuscule incidence of alleged voter misconduct to the estimated 11 percent of citizens who report not having an ID, many of whom are seniors or low-income earners. Even when there is no fee to acquire a voter ID, the documents required to to get that card, such as passports, may entail some cost and may be harder to come by for many elderly and economically disadvantaged voters.
Meanwhile, in a number of states efforts are underway to shorten or abolish the early voting period. A new law in Florida substantially cuts the early voting period, while lawmakers in Ohio are contemplating legislation that would slash their state’s pre-election registration period from 35 to 14 days. In addition, Maine legislators recently voted to end same-day registration for voters. In many cases, the rationale again is preventing fraud; the effect will be to diminish participation.
While advocates on both sides of this issue may have partisan motives, with the disenfranchised voters more likely to be Democrats, a cost-benefit analysis can be made on nonpartisan grounds. Are states better served if they protect the fundamental, constitutionally sanctioned rights of tens of millions of voters, or if they discourage voting in order to forestall a handful of fraud allegations each year? We would submit the former. Moreover, potentially vulnerable voters exist across party lines.
Voter IDs do more to inflict harm on democratic rule, wittingly or not, than they do to strengthen it. Making early voting more difficult for people who may not be able to turn out on Election Day (a workday for most) also will suppress turnout. Both types of measures will dampen participation in a chilling way.