It’s true: Voter ID laws are horrible. They are “voter suppression”; “elegant racism”; and, according to a federal judge, discrimination. The threat of voter fraud is a myth regularly conjured up for partisan advantage.
And yet, Republican-controlled state legislatures keep enacting them. Defeated Democrats may be right on the merits, but — wish fulfillment aside — they’re just not going to win this fight. So what, short of surrender, are they supposed to do? In the case of voter ID, and voter fraud more broadly, the focus on being right is hampering the party. If Democrats want to protect the vote, they are going to have to stop opposing voter ID and start working to expand the franchise. It’s a tough concession that could actually work to get more minority voters to the polls.
Unfortunately for Democrats and those affected by the laws, the voter ID fight is stacked against them. For several reasons, it’s hard to find widespread public condemnation of the policies. First, arguments on voter ID pit the intuitive against the complex. People who use identification — for buying alcohol, boarding planes or going to work — see it as a commonplace form of security. Moreover, for the vast majority of people out of poverty who have always had an ID, it’s hard to imagine why it might be hard to get one. Explaining means wonking out about how the cost and availability of identification disproportionately affects certain demographics. It’s easy to see which narrative is simpler to communicate.
Second, voter ID laws don’t conform to traditional political ideologies. Small government conservatives don’t normally want more government regulation, and liberals aren’t usually wary of registration (think: guns). It’s hard to catalyze your base on an issue if the base is conditioned on different values.
Third, the identification laws themselves are not the problem: It’s the related problem of discriminatory application of the law. There would be very little opposition to the law from any quarter if all people had a free, easy-to-get, state-issued ID card that allowed them to vote. But there is unequal access and retention rates among lower-income and elderly people, and many laws discriminate between forms of government ID (Texas allows gun permits but not university IDs). Although Democratic opposition is about application, it is portrayed as anti-ID per se. That’s not helpful, particularly as providing ID cards to those in need is a crucial social service that can give individuals access to many social programs.
These currents mean that ID laws — and others restricting voting — face only a cobbled resistance of diehards, without widespread condemnation. Rasmussen polls (for what they’re worth) report that 70 percent of likely voters are in favor of identification requirements for voting, and 78 percent are in favor of voters providing proof of citizenship. A more nuanced poll from the University of Delaware shows strong bipartisan support for voter ID under a number of question framings. Only when the question is framed in terms of denying people their right to vote do a majority of Democrats oppose voter ID, and then it’s only 57 percent. A group of Democrats have even recently started pushing for photos on Social Security cards which could be used as voter IDs. But national IDs won’t soon substitute for local ones.
There are, however, other common-sense ways for voting activists to channel their energies.
By admitting that voter ID is popular (leaving courts to strike it down where possible), Democrats can focus on other ways to broaden the franchise. Given Republican-led support for a tighter ballot box, a plan for universal voter registration and voter preregistration should follow: Automatic registration of eligible voters (even without a national ID card) would both expand voting and decrease errors in voter rolls. Moreover, the anemic Election Assistance Commission — Republicans refuse to accept nominees to any of the four commissioner slots — needs help. Strengthening the commission, which serves as a resource for voting standards, management, research and grantmaking, could be vital in improving turnout. (Think shorter lines, better ballots and well-trained poll workers.) Effort should be refocused on expanding early and mail-in voting, extending polling hours and moving to online voting. These are popular measures (many endorsed by the sensible Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration 2014 report) that — given the right space away from voter ID — should have no problem overcoming Republican resistance. Better voting systems, where elections operate smoothly without broken ballot boxes, are the least prone to fraud. By modernizing registration rather than fighting voter ID, Democrats could vastly increase the franchise and decrease the possibility of voter roll errors that fuel GOP frustration. Dropping the voter ID debate allows Democrats to bind Republicans to their own goals, and move on to bigger issues.
Moreover, since the battle over voter ID is often about winning elections (rather than the inherent value of the vote), both Republicans and Democrats ought to lend support to a middle ground on election administration that cuts their losses. Currently, voting systems, including ID, are often handled by a partisan, elected secretary of state, and sometimes by a partisan appointed official. In these cases, the electoral referee is playing for a team. Advocating for state-based independent electoral commissions without party affiliation could persuade Republicans and Democrats that elections won’t be “stolen” from them. Doing so would certainly sacrifice power for those who have it, but the farsighted will see they won’t always be in control of the rules of the electoral game. Independent election administration — like many countries have — will mean better election administration.
While stringently opposing voter ID might be ideal, it’s not practical nor as productive as these other suggestions. Accepting the measures’ popularity and working to make ID as available as possible, while moving toward broader voting goals, is the way forward for voting-rights advocates — and the nation.