The ID Divide

The recent Supreme Court ruling requiring voter ID in Indiana threatens voter disenfranchisement and highlights the growing “ID divide” in American society, write Cassandra Butts and Peter Swire.

Kim Tillman of Indianapolis cannot vote in Indiana because she does not have a state-issued photo identification. The rising use of ID systems should focus policy makers on the existence of a growing “ID divide” and the challenges it will present for  Americans. (AP/Michael Conroy)
Kim Tillman of Indianapolis cannot vote in Indiana because she does not have a state-issued photo identification. The rising use of ID systems should focus policy makers on the existence of a growing “ID divide” and the challenges it will present for  Americans. (AP/Michael Conroy)

There is no denying the increasing importance of personal identification in the daily lives of Americans after last week’s Supreme Court’s decision in the Indiana voter identification case, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board et al. Now, according to the Supreme Court, the importance of ID extends to the exercise of one of our most fundamental rights as citizens: the right to vote. In our view, the Court’s decision unjustly limits access to the franchise absent documented evidence of the type of fraud the photo-ID requirement is intended to prevent. Yet more broadly, the rising prevalence of the use of identification systems should focus policy makers on the existence of a growing “ID divide” and the challenges it will present for millions of Americans.

Just as the digital divide defined those with effective access to computers and the Internet and those without, the ID divide separates those who have multiple forms of ID and easy access to acquiring such credentials from those who do not. In a post-9/11 world, ID is requested in an increasing array of situations, from boarding an airplane to entering a government facility, starting a job to opening a bank account, and even when entering an office building. Those without ID, such as victims of ID theft and ID fraud, or those placed on a terrorist watch list or other “high-risk” lists, suffer in ways that credentialed Americans never experience.

Having multiple forms of ID has become second nature to credentialed Americans, making them less sensitized to requirements for showing ID to perform a range of activities in society. For example, polling shows that a majority of Americans favor showing a photo ID to vote. Yet the vast majority of Americans don’t realize that there are over 20 million Americans of voting age who currently lack a valid driver’s license, including roughly 10 percent of eligible voters.

Reinforcing the views of credentialed Americans on identification are the special interest politics surrounding the government procurement process for new identification initiatives. Government contractors, for example, are motivated by the economic reward of a lucrative contract if a new identification system moves forward and are deeply involved in advocating their approach at every step of the process. Public interest groups who oppose them lack the resources to be involved to the same degree. Absent a policy framework to rationalize the decision-making process, even isolated public interest victories fail to carry over to consideration of the next procurement contract.

If credentialed Americans saw the ID divide from the other side, they would see a number of challenges that should dictate caution in the implementation of identification systems. First of all, they would see that there are specific groups who disproportionately lack IDs today. Many Americans mistakenly believe that almost all U.S. adults have a driver’s license, but in fact over 20 million Americans of voting age currently lack a valid driver’s license, as do roughly 10 percent of all eligible voters. Disproportionately represented among this 10 percent are:

  • The legally blind or disabled to the point where it is difficult or impossible to drive
  • Older Americans who no longer drive
  • Teenagers who can’t afford the cost of acquiring a driver’s license
  • Poor families without the means to afford the costs associated with maintaining a driver’s license
  • Millions of urban Americans living in cities with public mass transit systems who do not have driver’s licenses

Communities of Color are also significantly less likely to have government-issued IDs. According to a 2006 survey by the Brennan Center, 25 percent of voting-age African Americans nationwide have no current government-issued photo ID, compared to eight percent of white voting-age citizens. In a Georgia study, Hispanics were twice as likely as whites not to have a government-issued photo ID.

In addition, Hispanic citizens born outside of the United States often face significant barriers to obtaining ID consistent with the challenges facing foreign-born citizens generally. Although less data exists for Native Americans, the Brennan Center reports that, in the five counties in South Dakota with the highest Native American populations, voters in the 2004 primary were two to eight times more likely not to bring ID to the polls than other voters in the state.

Secondly, credentialed Americans would see a large population of Americans affected by identity theft and identity fraud. Identity theft is the fastest growing crime of the 21st century—a crime that changes a credentialed American into one who faces the same insecurities of someone who lacks ID. The Federal Trade Commission reported that 8.3 million Americans suffered identity theft in 2005. New ID systems often rely on centralized databases that can result in massive data breaches, such as the records of 26 million veterans lost by the Veterans Administration in 2006. These data breaches can in turn lead to greatly increased rates of identity fraud. Poorly designed ID systems can therefore actually increase identity theft and change credentialed Americans into ones facing the same insecurities of those who lack ID.

The upshot: Badly designed identification systems can lead to greatly increased rates of identity fraud, which is perpetuated by identity thieves.

Third, credentialed Americans would find a growing number of individuals who have landed on post-9/11 watch lists. The No-Fly list operated by the Transportation and Safety Administration is expected to expand to over one million names in 2008. Problems with this list are infamous. Both Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) have landed on the list, as has the wife of Sen. Ted Stevens (R –AK). As with identity theft, a major problem with badly-designed identification systems is that larger numbers of people get flagged as “suspicious, ” triggering a cascade of problems for individuals as they are asked for ID in daily situations.

Finally, credentialed Americans would understand the exclusionary effects of stricter ID requirements where those who lack the right credentials are prohibited from participating in activities where ID is required. A 2007 study prepared for the Election Assistance Commission found that in states that had tightened ID requirements, African Americans were 5.7 percent less likely to vote than in states where they were asked to only state their name. Latinos were 10 percent less likely to vote under similar circumstances while the combined rate of people of all races was 2.7 percent less likely.

As the challenges that face individuals on the wrong side of the ID divide continue to grow and affect more Americans, and as identification systems continue to multiply and affect all Americans, citizens on both sides of the ID divide will be under increased risk of losing control of their identities. Designing identification systems with a policy framework in mind to address these challenges will be essential. In the coming months, the Center for American Progress in coordination with a group of policy experts will release such a policy framework that will define a progressive way forward on identification policy.

Cassandra Butts is Senior Vice President for Domestic Policy at the Center for American Progress. Peter Swire is a Senior Fellow at the Center.

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Peter Swire

Senior Fellow