Papers Please, An Analysis of Both Sides of the Voter ID Debate

“Papers Please”, An Analysis of Both Sides of the Voter ID Debate

Nathan Gilbert

  1. Introduction

In 2011, the legislature of the state of Alabama passed a controversial new law requiring prospective voters to present a government issued form of photo identification before voting.[1]  Alabama was not the first state to pass such a law; in fact, at least 20 states have passed similar legislation requiring a photo ID to vote.[2]  These statutes, many of which were passed in the states that make up the former Confederacy[3], have been extremely contentious and have elicited passionate arguments on both sides.[4] 

Proponents of these voter ID laws argue that their purpose is to protect the integrity of the ballot from would-be voter fraud.[5]  They assert that voter fraud is rampant and widespread, especially in certain areas, and that requiring voters to present photo identification will merely serve to safeguard the process from illegal and fraudulent voting.[6]  Supporters often say that these laws have no partisan basis and are merely a way to ensure the reliability of the democratic system.[7] 

Opponents of these laws, however, paint a much different picture. They claim that voter ID laws are a solution in search of a problem and that the burden of voter ID laws is unfairly borne by historically underrepresented groups such as minorities, women, and the poor.[8]  Additionally, some opponents of voter ID laws claim that these laws were passed with a distinctly partisan agenda in mind and that they serve to intentionally disenfranchise traditionally Democratic voters.[9]

  1. Arguments In Support of Voter ID

Supporters of voter ID laws claim that these laws are necessary to prevent what they perceive to be widespread voter fraud.[10]  They point to various instances where they claim elections were tampered with by fraudulent voting[11]. To supporters, opponents’ arguments that the requirements of obtaining photo identification to vote are too onerous and have the potential to disenfranchise voters are “fundamentally dishonest” and even “intensely racist”.[12] They argue that a photo ID is required for most everything in American society today such as driving, cashing a check, buying alcohol, obtaining a job, or checking into a hotel.[13]  If requiring photo ID for these things is so simple that it seems common place, then why should a process as sacred to our republic be any different?  Supporters of these laws, and the states that have passed them, claim that there is no racial, class, or partisan basis for them.[14]  However, even some supporters do claim, with little to no factual basis that almost all voter fraud in this country is perpetrated by supporters of the Democratic Party.[15] Conservative commentator Martin Wright explains, “Voter fraud is usually an organized activity, not some spur-of-the-moment decision by its perpetrators, the overwhelming majority of whom are Democrats – as we have seen with the IRS and FEC, the spirit of Tammany Hall is still very much alive and well in the Democrat(sic) Party.”[16] To supporters, the requirement to obtain a government issued photo ID is merely a “simple process” that does not present a large burden on anyone with a desire to participate in the electoral process.[17]

  1. Argument Opposing Voter ID

Probably the chief argument in opposition to the photo ID requirements for voters is that the problem of in-person voter fraud does not truly exist, or does not exist in a great enough quantity so as to warrant voter ID requirements that could, and they argue, will, potentially disenfranchise voters.[18]  Opponents of voter ID do not argue that states do not have an interest in ensuring that the person presenting themselves to vote is in reality who they say they are.  However, they do argue that the current laws that do not require a photo ID are sufficient.[19] 

New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice has conducted substantial research in this field and has concluded that in person voter fraud, the type that could potentially be stopped by requiring photo ID, is so rare that it could be insignificant when considering the huge number of votes cast in American elections.[20]  In fact, statistically speaking, “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”[21] Taking into account the extreme rarity of in person voter fraud, the price of disenfranchising legitimate voters who lack the required necessary ID is simply unconscionable.  Opponents of these laws rely on facts such as the following to illustrate their point:

  • “11 percent of eligible voters… lack the required photo ID” necessary to vote under these laws.[22]
  •  “Nearly 500,000 eligible voters do not have            access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID-issuing office.”[23]
  • “People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo ID than the general population.”[24]
  • Only 48% of American voting-age women have access to a birth certificate (often a requirement to obtain most government issued photo identification) bearing their current legal name, as opposed to their maiden name.[25]

In addition, some opponents of these laws argue that the true motive of the laws’ supporters is not an altruistic desire for fair and honest elections, but rather to systematically disenfranchise traditionally left-leaning constituencies (the poor, people of color, and students) for their own political gain.[26]  It is no secret that President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party benefitted heavily from record turnout from these groups in the historic 2008 elections.[27]  Some even see these laws restricting voting rights as a stealth continuation of the Jim Crow laws that kept poor and minority voters disenfranchised in the American South for generations.[28] Congressman John Lewis opined that today’s restrictions on voting rights are akin to Jim Crow laws and are simply “the same face with a different mask.”[29] Republican politicians have consistently used ‘dog whistle’ issues, such as bussing and states’ rights, to signal their race-baiting intentions to their white constituents.[30]  It can be argued that these new voter ID statutes are just a continuation of the dark legacy of voter suppression by the dominant racial and social class.

  1. Conclusion

The right to vote select one’s leaders is one of the “fundamental rights” that Americans enjoy.[31] Regardless of one’s political affiliation, all Americans can likely agree that it is important that we safeguard the voting rights of our citizens from threats in any form they may come.  But the question of whether state laws requiring voters to present a photo ID are a necessary step to safeguard the system or a discriminatory tool used to disenfranchise poor and minority voters is one that sharply divides Americans and that division does not seem to be abating in the foreseeable future.


[1] Ala. Code § 17-9-30 (2011).

[2] See, Voter Identification Requirements, National Conference of State Legislatures (2013),

[3] See id. Of the 20 states that have passed photo voter ID laws, all of those that made up the former Confederate States of America are included: Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. Id.

[4] William Browning, ‘Jim Crow is Alive,’ Says Missouri Democrat During Contentious Voter ID Debate, Yahoo!- News (Feb. 14, 2013),

[5] See Hans A. von Spakovsky, Democracy in Danger: Case Studies of Election Fraud, Heritage Foundation (Oct. 27, 2008) at 3, available at

[6] Id. at 1.

[7] Jonathan S. Toobin, Voter ID Laws Are Inherently Reasonable, Not Racist or Republican, Christian Science Monitor (July 23, 2012),

[8] See Keesha Gaskins & Sundeep Iyer, The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification, Brennan Center For Justice at New York University School of Law (July 29, 2011),

[9] See Jamelle Bouie, Republicans Admit Voter-ID Laws Are Aimed at Democratic Voters, The Daily Beast (Aug. 28, 2013), (“And the particular restrictions imposed by Republican lawmakers- limiting the acceptable forms of identification…- certainly do appear aimed at Democratic voters.”).

[10] Toobin, supra note 7.

[11] See Spakovsky, supra note 5.

[12] Martin Knight, Why Democrats Really Oppose Voter ID, RedState (Aug. 17, 2013),

[13] Id.

[14] See Toobin, supra note 7.

[15]  Knight, supra note 11.

[16] Id.

[17] John Gerardi, Arguments Against Voter ID Are Ridiculous, The Daily Caller (July 16, 2012),

[18] See Eugene Robinson, Witch Hunt for the Zombie Voter, The Washington Post (Apr. 30, 2012), (“There is no Widespread Voter Fraud. All available evidence indicates that fraudulent voting of the kind that photo ID laws would presumably prevent- someone shows up at the polls and votes in someone else’s name- just doesn’t happen.”).

[19] See Eugene Robinson, The GOP’s Crime Against Voters, The Washington Post (July 9, 2012), (“[T]he Justice Department under Bush conducted an extensive, nationwide, five-year probe of voter fraud- and ended up convicting a grand total of 86 individuals… Most of the cases involved felons or immigrants who may not have known they were ineligible to vote. Not one case involved the only kind of fraud that voter ID could theoretically prevent.”).

[20] See Justin Levitt, The Truth About Voter Fraud, Brennan Center For Justice at New York University School of Law (2007) at 3,

[21] Id. at 4.

[22] Gaksins & Iyer, supra note 8, at 1.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Citizens Without Proof: A Survey of Americans’ Possession of Documentary Proof of Citizenship and Photo Identification, Brennan Center For Justice at New York University School of Law (Nov. 2006) at 2,

[26] See Bouie, supra note 9.

[27] See Sam Roberts, 2008 Surge in Black Voters Nearly Erased Racial Gap, The New York Times (July 20, 2009), (“But with Barack Obama on the ballot, the makeup of the 131 million who voted last year was markedly different. While the number of non-Hispanic white voters remained roughly the same, 2 million more blacks, 2 million more Latinos and 600,000 more Asians turned out.”).  

[28] Saki Knafo, Voting Rights of Black American Trampled by ‘New Jim Crow,’ Civil Rights Advocates Say, The Huffington Post (July 25, 2013),

[29] Id.

[30] See Frank Rudy Cooper, Masculinities, Post-racialism and the Gates Controversy: The False Equivalence between Officer and Civilian, 11 Nev. L.J. 1, 33-34 (010)

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