Over the past several years, there has been much debate about the importance of voter ID laws. Proponents of voter ID laws, especially those requiring photo identification, claim that this legislation protects the integrity of the ballot box. They believe that people will be able to vote more than once under names not their own. While this seems like a perfectly reasonable intention, the fact of the matter is that these laws can have a negative impact on elections and voting rights.
There is already a sizable problem in the United States with people registering and turning out to vote. The fact that citizens must register themselves instead of being automatically registered is one reason why the United States lags behind many first world countries in voter turnout. Some of the stricter voter ID laws make it even more difficult to vote. The fear of many is that this added complexity to voting causes a drop in turnout that far exceeds the cases of voter fraud that it would prevent.
For example, one study found that about 300,000 registered voters in North Carolina and Wisconsin had neither a driver’s license nor a state ID. There are many reasons that a person may not have photo identification; for example, they may not have a driver’s license if they are too old to drive or had it taken away for whatever reason. And it’s not always easy to then obtain a state ID if you don’t already have photo identification. Some offices that issue these IDs are not often open and people working jobs may not have the time to get an ID.
It should be noted that voter ID laws only prevents voter impersonation, which would consist of a person going to the polls and pretending to be someone else and voting for them. This is a crime that doesn’t happen often. Justin Levitt, a professor at the Loyola Law School, compiled a list of every single allegation of voter fraud that voter ID laws are likely to prevent from 2000 to 2014 in all U.S. elections. He found that in this time period there were only 31 different incidents, mostly concerning a single ballot. In that time period, over one billion votes were cast in elections.
Based on this, voter impersonation is not a major issue in any way. The core reason, says comedian John Oliver, is that it is “a stupid crime.” To risk a fine and prison time to steal one vote, likely to be insignificant in virtually every election, simply does not make sense. To be sure, there are cases of voter fraud. Voter ID laws aren’t designed to stop fraud with absentee ballots, vote buying, coercion, and other ways of stealing elections. And yet state courts upholding these laws have cited these cases of voter fraud as reason for keeping them in place.
Voter ID laws do very little to stop more dangerous methods of voter fraud. All they do is prevent something that happens about twice a year in the entire country. ID laws don’t even enhance public confidence about elections, as people in states with more restrictive laws generally don’t feel better about elections than those in states with more lenient laws.
But there has been a measured effect in terms of voter turnout. Nate Silver estimated the effect voter ID law changes had on presidential voting in states. Silver estimated that these laws decreased voter turnout anywhere from 0.8 percent to 2.4 percent of the registered voter population in each state. The percentages may seem low, but for Pennsylvania his estimate relates to a drop in voter turnout by about 200,000 people. This is just one state, and the cases of voter fraud that this prevents do not come remotely close.
Voting is a fundamental right of all Americans. This country has had voting laws in the past that were deliberately designed to prevent black people and poor people from voting. Studies have shown these laws disproportionately affect minorities and lower turnout overall. We should be making it easier for people to vote, not harder. And when voter ID laws so clearly have an adverse effect on voter turnout, we should be reconsidering how much voter fraud they actually prevent. Voting is a right that too many have fought to have. It should not be repressed in any way, shape, or form in our society.
Jacob Kowalski is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.