Voter I.D. Laws: Inherently Racist, Misunderstood or Mischaracterized?

Voter I.D. Laws: Inherently Racist, Misunderstood or Mischaracterized?

By Logan Manthey

One night, while working in the ACRCL room, I debated with a few peers the merits of having mandatory voter identification cards. Both disagreed with me. Some of the arguments they used were the ones that are usually used, like that these laws are racist and are a means by Republicans to relegate blacks to a lower class of citizens harkening back to the days of Jim Crow or affect blacks at a higher rate than whites because blacks are typically poorer. Because they are typically poorer, they will not be able to obtain these identification cards as required by law. However, I posited that these laws are not inherently racist, nor do they affect blacks at a higher rate. I believe that the principle of federalism that this country was founded on allows states to pass these laws in order to police their elections, and as long as these laws do not unduly burden the process of getting the I.D.s burdensome, these laws are constitutional. The challenges against these laws have been turned away be the courts of the states that have passed these laws and even the Supreme Court in states where they have been challenged like Georgia and Indiana. These laws do work, and they do not depress the number of people turning out to vote because most people in the U.S. already have some form of photo I.D. or they are easily obtained.

There is a lot of perceived confusion about what these laws require of people in order to vote, and if the potential voters do not meet the requirements, what is allowed to be done to become eligible. As of 2012, a total of thirty-three states have passed these voter ID laws, and seventeen of those require that a proper form of ID be presented at the polls.[1] There are two levels of states that have enacted voter ID laws: “strict” states and “non-strict” states.[2] “Strict” states allow those who are unable to present a valid Id to cast a provisional ballot which will not be counted until the voter returns to the polling place and provides a valid ID.[3] “Non-strict” states provide voters with other means of casting a ballot without a valid ID.[4] For example, the potential voter may sign an “affidavit of identity.”[5] Thus, even the most strict of states, one may cast a ballot, and so long as a proper ID can be obtained and taken back to the poll within a certain amount of time, the vote will be confirmed.

There are plenty of reasons to pass these laws. For instance, if more states pass these laws, there may possibly be an insurgence of confidence in the voting system as more people will believe that their vote counts and is not diluted by those cheating the system. The Commission on Federal Election Reform said, “The electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters. Photo IDs currently are needed to board a plan, enter federal buildings, and cash a check. Voting is equally important.”[6] Voter ID laws will help to prevent and deter impersonation fraud at the polls, voting under fictitious voter registrations, double voting by individuals registered in more than one state or locality, and voting by legal/illegal aliens. [7] Every illegal vote dilutes the votes of legitimate voters.[8] However, detractors claim that fraud is not as prevalent as proponents of these laws make it out to be.

Voter fraud is a very real threat. There is a recent example of voter fraud right here in Tuscaloosa in a recent Board of Education election. That election was an extremely close one decided by the narrowest of margins in which the fraud could have made a difference in the outcome. In a recent Supreme Court case on this very issue in which it was decided the voter I.D.s were constitutional, Justice Stevens wrote in the majority opinion, “It remains true, however, that flagrant examples of such fraud in other parts of the country have been documented throughout this Nation’s history by respected historians and journalists, that occasional examples have surfaced in recent years…that…demonstrate that not only is the risk of voter fraud real but that it could affect the outcome of a close election.”[9] There is a real potential risk that voter fraud may steal a close election. There are enough incidents that occur each year that there should be steps taken to deter these bad actors. Thus, voter ID laws cut down on these risks.

Although there is a real need for these laws, the detractors claim that these laws are thinly veiled attempts of preventing Democrats from voting or that these laws are aimed at preventing blacks and poor people from voting who tend to vote more liberally than other demographic groups. Some even say that these laws are the equivalent of poll taxes and would be an “imposition of ‘Jim Crow.’”[10] However, according to studies, none of these assertions hold any water. These laws have come with dire warnings and claims from their detractors that thousands will be disenfranchised.[11] Even with all of the lawsuits, no one has produced “not a single piece of evidence of any identifiable registered voter who would be prevented from voting pursuant to the photo ID law because of his or her inability to obtain the necessary photo identification.”[12]

According to a study conducted by Jeffrey Milyo on the Indiana ID law, between the elections of 2002, the last election before the ID law was enacted, and 2006, the election after the ID law was enacted, Indiana experienced an increase in voter turnout by about 2%.[13] Milyo goes further. In counties with larger percentages of minority or poor voters, an insignificant increase took place.[14] The less educated and elderly also appear to have not been negatively affected by these laws as there was not “consistent or significant impact on relative turnout in counties with a greater percentage of less educated or elderly voters.”[15] It appears that this law also increases the turnout of Democrats, the party that so opposes these reforms.[16] The turnouts in Democrat-leaning counties were statistically significant in all but one case. [17] Citing other studies done, Milyo reports that “voter ID laws are not significantly related to turnout in either the aggregate state data or individual level data.”[18] Citing the same report, Milyo states that idiosyncratic factors, such as individual interest in politics, are far more important in determining voter turnout than voter ID laws.[19] Therefore, according to this study, these laws do not deter minorities, elderly, poor, or poorly educated from voting.

These laws do not deter large groups of people from voting as their detractors claim, nor do they operate as a poll tax. A person in the present day cannot operate without a valid form of government ID. One needs an ID to get on a plane, or cash a check.[20] In fact, there are 19 million more valid driver’s licenses than there are registered voters in the US.[21] This statistic does not include the passports, government employee IDs, and military IDs, all of which are valid forms of photo IDs, that one can use to vote if need be. So to compare voter ID laws to a poll tax is a fallacy as so many people have valid Ids. Even if one does need to obtain a valid ID, it would be a one-time burden, unlike the cost of time and transportation required for in-person voting each time one votes which is not equated to a poll tax.[22]

Voter ID laws are widely misconstrued and mischaracterized as racist, taxing, and unfair. However, when one looks at the numbers, it seems that the negative effects that these laws are supposedly intended to create do not exist. States have valid interests in deterring voter fraud, and by doing so, states may build confidence in the security of elections.[23] So long as these laws do not put on undue burden on the right to vote, states have every right to pass these laws and police their elections.


[1] John Tamasitis, “Things have changed in the south”: How Preclearance of South Carolina’s Voter Photo ID Law Demonstrates that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act Is No Longer a Constitutional Remedy, 64 S. C. L. REV. 959, 963 (2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Hans A. von Spakovsky, Protecting the Integrity of the Election Process, 11 ELECTION L. J. 90, 91 (2012).

[7] Id .

[8] Id.

[9] Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181, 195 (2008).

[10] Spakavosky, supra note 6, at 96.

[11] Id. at 93

[12] Id. at 94.

[13] Jeffrey Milyo, The Effects of Photographic Identification on Voter Turnout in Indiana: A County-Level Analysis, MOSPACE REPOSITORY, 1, (Revised Dec. 2007), https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/2549/ Effects PhotographicIdentificationVoter.pdf?sequence=1.

[14] Id. at 7.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id at 3.

[19] Id.

[20] Spakovsky, supra note 6, at 91.

[21] Id. at 94.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 96.

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