Voter ID Laws: Fraud Prevention or Voter Suppression?

By Tracy Schorn

September 12, 2016

Vote buttonAre voter ID laws commonsense reforms needed to prevent voter fraud, or are they cynical stratagems intended to disenfranchise minority voters?

It's a question for 14 states as they test new voting restrictions just in time for the 2016 presidential election—Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The restrictions range from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks to registration restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Lawsuits have been filed against many of these requirements, with some reversals. On September 9 the D.C. Circuit blocked the voter registration requirements in Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas, although other restrictions remain in place in Alabama and Kansas. In July 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a series of voting restrictions in North Carolina, and in August 2016, a federal court enjoined North Dakota's photo ID law. There also have been court victories in Texas and Wisconsin, lessening the impact of restrictive laws, although the restrictions still go beyond what was in place during the 2012 presidential election.

Proponents of voting restrictions argue that the measures are needed to curtail voter fraud. Critics contend that voter fraud is rare, and the barriers disenfranchise minority, rural, and elderly voters.

"Supposed voter fraud, by which someone impersonates another voter, is astoundingly rare," says Vanessa Williamson, a Governance Studies fellow at the Brookings Institution. In Williamson's opinion, voter ID laws "are a solution in search of a problem."

Which is unfortunate, she says, because the United States has overlooked actual electoral problems that do not concern voter ID. "The focus on voter fraud draws attention away from real election problems, such as closed polling places, fewer voting machines, which lead to long lines, understaffing, etc.," Williamson says.

Compounding the problem are a host of regional differences when voting—differences that Williamson says are exploited. "Having a patchwork of federal, state, and local voting laws is not a sensible way to run elections. As an American citizen, just moving to a different state can mean new hurdles, or fewer hurdles, to my right to vote," she says.

Voting restrictions are not "reforms" so much as deliberate stratagems to win elections, according to Williamson. "The effect [of these laws] is disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters, and that benefits Republicans. It's clearly a political act. And very unfortunate."

Hans von Spakovsky, an attorney who runs the Election Law Reform Initiative at the Heritage Foundation, counters that voter ID laws do not disenfranchise voters, but instead encourage citizen participation.

"Voter ID laws are a necessary component of ensuring election integrity—that is why they are a standard requirement in Western democracies, including almost all of Europe, and countries like Mexico and South Africa," he says.

"Polling shows that Americans of all races overwhelmingly agree that they are a commonsense reform, and we know from years' worth of turnout data in states like Georgia and Indiana that they do no keep anyone out of the polls. In fact, those states saw increases in turnout, including of minority voters, when their laws were implemented," von Spakovsky says. "And as the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out in 2008 when it upheld Indiana's law, such laws help ensure public confidence in elections, which encourages citizen participation in the democratic process."

Lorraine Minnite, a political scientist at Rutgers University and author of The Myth of Voter Fraud, argues that both parties are guilty of trying to restrict the opposition's vote. "Both parties fight over the rules and try to shape them for electoral advantage," says Minnite, who served as research director for the nonprofit voting rights organization Project Vote.

Voting restrictions usually occur in states where one party has a tenuous grip on a majority of the electorate, Minnite says. "If you look at voting trends, it's clear that today's Republican party is not appealing to racial minorities. As a party, they look at the electorate and think, 'How can we make a majority here?' They do it by trying to put their coalition together, but they also do it by trying to make it harder for supporters of their opponents to vote."

Proponents of voter ID laws argue that even if fraud is uncommon, the ID is a commonsense prevention measure, which would have the effect of inspiring confidence in the system.

A 2008 Harvard Law Review essay written by Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of government at Harvard, and Nathaniel Persily, constitutional law expert at Stanford Law School, stated that perceptions of fraud had no relationship to an individual's likelihood of turning out to vote. "[V]oters who were subject to stricter identification requirements believe fraud is just as widespread as do voters subject to less restrictive identification requirements," they wrote.

What other solutions are there to protect the sanctity of the vote that could appeal to both sides of the argument? "Other countries have formally nonpartisan civil service agencies run elections, like having an umpire in the game.  [To create nonpartisanship], you cultivate and reward a culture of professionalism and fairness," says Minnite.

To see more details about voting restrictions by state, visit the Brennan Center for Justice.