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As extremes shape voter ID debate, the rules keep getting stricter

PolitiFact | Efforts to tighten identification requirements for voting, largely driven by Republicans, have accelerated this year in the wake of the 2020 election.
North Carolina election workers check voters' identification on Super Tuesday at a library in Asheville,  on March 8, 2016.
North Carolina election workers check voters' identification on Super Tuesday at a library in Asheville, on March 8, 2016.
Published Aug. 10

If you have to show a photo ID to buy a beer, board a plane or pick up a ticket at will call, shouldn’t you have to show one to cast a ballot? Doesn’t our democratic process deserve at least that level of security?

So goes a familiar argument for voter ID requirements.

The argument on the other side holds that any ID requirements infringe on a sacred civil right, often with partisan or racist effects. A ballot is not the same as a beer, after all.

Such rhetoric suggests the existence of two clear, irreconcilable camps — those who support voter ID laws and those who oppose them, and a stark choice between fraud and racism. Yes-or-no-style polls on the subject feed this perception.

But voting-law specialists say that this overlooks some important nuances in the debate, such as the wide variety of voter ID requirements and verification processes already in place, the low risk of voter fraud, and the support even among voting rights advocates for ID requirements that are flexible enough to accommodate all voters.

One thing is clear: The trend over the past two decades has been toward tighter voter ID requirements. And in the months since the 2020 election, several Republican-run legislatures sympathetic to Donald Trump’s false voter fraud claims have rushed to tighten the rules further, with special scrutiny of mailed and absentee ballots, which tend to be used by Democrats.

In Georgia, for example, a new law requires voters applying for absentee ballots to provide the number from their driver’s license or state ID on the application, or provide another form of ID, such as a utility bill. Then, when voters cast their absentee ballot, they must include the number again, or the last four digits of their Social Security number. If voters don’t have those ID numbers, they have to put a utility bill or some other form of ID in the envelope with the ballot.

Democratic officials and voting rights advocates have criticized these and other laws as overly burdensome, especially for groups who are less likely to have photo ID, including minorities and people with disabilities.

“Every jurisdiction in the United States does something to verify the identity of voters,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine. “The problem is that some states accept only narrow forms of photographic identification for voting, and for a small subset of people, getting this kind of identification presents a big burden.”

Yet large majorities of Americans, including many Democrats, say they support some form of voter identification, giving politicians a freer hand to keep tightening the rules.

Not all ID requirements are the same

Many industrialized democracies such as Belgium, France, Greece, Italy and Spain provide universal national identity documents that serve a wide variety of purposes, one of which is voter identification. Some countries require no ID to vote, including Denmark, Australia, and New Zealand, while others, such as Canada, allow a lengthy list of IDs to serve the purpose.

The U.S. is different: Each state sets its own requirements. Many allow a wide variety of both photo identification, such as student ID cards, and non-photo IDs, such as utility bills or bank statements that have a current address. States can also choose whether voters who lack any of the approved IDs can instead submit a sworn statement attesting to their identities.

Democrats proposed legislation this year to require states to allow more such workarounds, but it remains stalled.

While it might not be obvious from the heated debates over voter ID laws, advocates for voting access generally agree that ID requirements are acceptable if there are enough options available to voters.

“I think we view voter ID as running on a long spectrum, from those states that are stricter to those that are less strict,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director for voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school, one of the leading voices against efforts to curtail access to voting.

The shorter the list of acceptable IDs gets, he said, “the more concerned we are.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures has divided up the states that have voter ID laws into two groups: those with strict ID laws and those with non-strict laws.

The “strict” states say that voters who do not present an allowable form of ID can cast only a provisional ballot and must take additional steps after Election Day for their ballot to be counted. These may include visiting the election office to present an ID. The states with the strictest laws enacted them under Republican administrations.

The non-strict states, by contrast, allow at least some voters without acceptable identification to cast a ballot normally. For instance, a voter may sign an affidavit attesting to their identity, or poll workers may be permitted to vouch for the voter.

Indeed, many states with voter ID requirements have a sizable list of acceptable alternatives — not just a variety of photo ID options but also documents such as utility bills, bank statements, government checks, car registrations, tax bills and Social Security cards.

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For example, West Virginia accepts a driver’s license, passport, federal or state government employee ID card, high school or college ID card, military ID card, gun permit, Medicare or Medicaid card, Social Security card, birth certificate, voter registration card, hunting or fishing license, food stamp or other federal benefits ID card, bank or debit card, utility bill, bank statement, or health insurance card. In the absence of any of these, a registered voter can be vouched for by an adult — including a poll worker — who has known the voter for at least six months.

West Virginia “has a reasonably inclusive approach,” said Rob Richie, president and CEO of FairVote, a national voting advocacy group. “Something like the West Virginia approach feels like it gets pretty close” to a good balance.

H.R. 1, the voting rights legislation backed by many congressional Democrats, doesn’t expressly ban voter ID requirements, but it does say states must allow voters to present election officials a sworn written statement attesting to their identity and their eligibility to vote.

“This alternative can be important for those few eligible voters that might have difficulty meeting restrictive identification requirements,” David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, told PolitiFact.

University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald said that a generous set of ID options and the ability to attest to one’s identity should be a reasonable approach to balance voting security and access.

“Supporters of voter ID laws often compare it to flying on an airplane, but I’ve lost my ID while traveling, and what did they do? They didn’t keep me from flying. They gave me an additional screening,” McDonald said. “That’s what these backup policies for voting are.”

What bothers some voting rights advocates is what’s in the mix of allowable options. In Texas and Tennessee, for example, gun permits are considered valid voter IDs, but student IDs are not. Critics say this makes it easy for gun owners, a heavily Republican group, to vote but harder for students, a predominantly Democratic group.

Racial impacts of voter ID laws

Opponents of the strictest forms of voter ID laws point to evidence that says they are most likely to burden minorities.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that in Georgia, where the new ID requirements for absentee ballots and applications took effect this year, over 272,000 registered voters in June didn’t have a driver’s license or state ID on file with election officials, which amounts to 3.5 percent of the state’s 7.8 million registered voters. More than half of these voters were Black. About 80,000 of the voters may have IDs, but their information wasn’t matched in election data, the newspaper found.

A team led by Matt Barreto, a UCLA political scientist who conducts polling for the Democratic National Committee and the White House, examined election surveys between 2008 and 2014 in which eligible voters were asked whether they had access to an ID. Collectively, the surveys found that whites were the most likely to have a valid ID — about 91 percent. By comparison, 81% of Blacks possessed a valid ID, along with 82 percent of Latinos and 85 percent of Asians.)

“Existing research demonstrates that voter ID laws are partisan tools, designed with the marginalized fringe of the Democratic Party in mind, to shape the electorate primarily in favor of state Republican legislatures facing competitive elections,” the authors of the analysis wrote.

An earlier analysis, by the Government Accountability Office in 2014, reviewed 10 studies that estimated ownership of driver’s licenses or state IDs and found that between 84 percent and 95 percent of voters had such identification. Many of the studies found that ID ownership among Black registered voters lagged the rate for white voters.

Barreto told PolitiFact that even if a small minority of voters lacks an acceptable ID, they should not be ignored.

“Voting is a public right and should not be compared to picking up baseball tickets or flying for vacation,” Barreto said. “It should be held as the most sacred and equally accessible public right in our country. … We should have the most empathy and concern for those 10 percent who do not and try to put ourselves in their life situation.”

How common is voter fraud?

Republicans who press for additional voter ID restrictions argue that they are needed to counter voting fraud. But if the number of people without photo IDs is small, the number of instances of fraud — whether it’s voting in person or by mail — is infinitesimal.

Bloomberg reporters recently surveyed state officials nationwide for evidence of voter fraud that led to court charges since the November 2018 elections. They found about 200 cases.

Their number may not reflect a full accounting nationwide since local prosecutors can make their own charging decisions, but it shows that voter fraud is rare.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks during a July 12, 2021 news conference at the Ohio Statehouse. He was there to discuss instances of suspected voter fraud his office had referred for further investigation.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose speaks during a July 12, 2021 news conference at the Ohio Statehouse. He was there to discuss instances of suspected voter fraud his office had referred for further investigation.

Last year, MIT professor Charles Stewart and Amber McReynolds, the founding CEO of Vote at Home, used a historical database of voter fraud cases compiled by the Heritage Foundation and found that the number of fraud cases using mail ballots over 20 years “translates to about 0.00006% of total votes cast.”

Even so, supporters of tighter laws say it’s reasonable to expect voters to show an ID for the sake of election integrity.

“To be a functioning member of society you have to have a valid form of ID,” said Jason Snead, executive director of the Honest Elections Project, which supports voter ID laws. Without it, “you can’t buy beer, drive, rent an apartment, buy a house, get married. So much depends on a photo ID, it seems to me it’s a lot better to help folks get free ID rather than say using it for voting is unacceptable.”

For the better part of two decades, efforts have been made to strike a “grand bargain” that would make voter ID requirements uniform nationwide: The government would create and distribute a free national ID card, and this card would be accepted at the polls everywhere. Under some forms of the proposal, voter registration wouldn’t be necessary. Anyone with the card would simply show it and be able to vote.

Both liberals and conservatives have thrown up obstacles, said McDonald, a supporter of the idea. On the right, libertarians have expressed concern about centralizing too much power in the hands of the federal government, arguing that a national ID card could become required for many other purposes that don’t currently require identification. On the left, advocates for non-citizens have worried that a card only for voting-eligible citizens would drive a wedge between citizens and non-citizens.

What polls on voter ID show

Recent polling on whether ID should be required for voting suggests that supporters of these laws have public opinion on their side.

• A Monmouth University poll from June 2021 found that 80 percent of respondents supported “requiring voters to show a photo ID in order to vote.”

• A Pew Research Center poll from April 2021 found that 76 percent of respondents favored “requiring all voters to show government-issued photo identification to vote.”

• An AP-NORC poll from March 2021 found that 72 percent favored “requiring all voters to provide photo identification in order to vote.”

Support for requiring a photo ID for mail voting was softer, but still accounted for a majority. An Economist/YouGov poll from March 2021 found 53 percent support for requiring a photo ID to vote absentee.

Notably, these findings show broad public support specifically for a photo ID, which can be harder to secure than, say, a utility bill or bank statement. In the Monmouth and Pew polls, just over 60 percent of Democrats backed photo ID requirements.

Voting rights specialists say respondents to these polls may not grasp the issue’s nuances.

Most states already have some form of voter ID requirement, so such polling data should not be interpreted as support for rules that further limit the types of acceptable IDs or remove backup mechanisms, said Bernard Fraga, an Emory University political scientist.

“This nuance is not captured in survey results that purport to show the vast majority of Americans support voter identification laws,” Fraga said.

Barreto agreed that polling data should be taken with a grain of salt. “Most survey questions about voter ID laws do not explain to the public that about 10 percent of eligible voters would be excluded from voting” if a photo ID were a strict condition, he said.