2011 was a historic year for people across the world wanting more access to a democratic and open political process. Movements such as the Arab Spring inspired people to take action and have a say in their political future, and the Occupy Wall Street movement is a manifestation of that desire here in the United States. Yet instead of making it easier for U.S. citizens to participate in our democratic process, there are strong and misguided efforts to make it more difficult.
States across the country have enacted or are in the process of enacting a range of laws and policies making it harder to vote. This new wave of voter restrictions not only includes photo ID laws but also proof of citizenship, reducing early and absentee ballot voting, ending same-day voter registration, and restrictions to restoring voting rights after incarceration.
According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, more than 5 million voters could be affected by these laws and, as we explain below, they are an expensive way to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
Voter fraud is not a problem
Proponents of voter restrictions measures argue that “voter fraud” is rampant. But the facts do not bear this out.
For instance, a five-year investigation by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush found just 86 instances of improper voting from 2002 to 2005. A Brennan Center report released in 2007, "The Truth About Fraud," found that allegations of voting fraud are often wholly inaccurate or heavily exaggerated. According to the report’s authors, voter impersonation—the type of voter fraud targeted by current voter ID legislation—is “more rare than death by lightning.” And in Virginia, which is one of the latest states very close to passing voter ID legislation, proponents could not cite one single example of voter fraud in the state.
The fact is that most states already require voters to show ID at the polls. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 established federal voter ID requirements and requires ID at the polls from all first-time voters who register by mail who fail to provide an ID at the time of registration. There are also harsh penalties for those who, for example, try to impersonate a voter or for those who erroneously fill out voter registration cards.
Additional voter ID verification laws are expensive, difficult to carry out, and bad for states’ bottom lines
The Advancement Project estimates that states contemplating a photo ID requirement could face up to $20 million or more in expenses.
There are also many legal requirements to implement photo ID legislation. For one, voters cannot be made to spend any money in order to exercise their right to vote or else the proposal could be unconstitutional. Photo ID proposals therefore must cover costs of providing ID. Indiana, which has the strictest photo ID law in the nation, spent more than $10 million to provide IDs to voters who needed one.
In addition, states would need to spend a substantial amount of money to educate voters about changes in the law, facilitate the process of obtaining an ID, and incur increased administrative costs to implement these measures.
These laws disproportionately affect certain groups
Yet as bad as the fiscal (and legal) repercussions are, what’s most at stake is the impact on people’s right to vote and their ability to participate fully in our democracy. And as is often the case, those who have the most to lose are the ones bearing the brunt of these legislative efforts: the elderly, low-income workers, and people of color, since they often lack forms of identification and/or sometimes do not have the means to get the necessary documentation to get their photo IDs.
According to the Brennan Justice Center study, efforts to implement photo ID laws, for example, could affect 3.2 million voters in just five states (Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin)—the estimated number of people in those states who currently lack ID.
And the efforts to make voting harder—such as restricting voter registration drives, ending early voting, and making it more difficult for people with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored—also negatively affect young people and people of color.
In 2008, Florida alone registered at least 176,000 voters through voter registration drives, yet the state passed a law in 2011 that closed or eliminated most drives as well as imposing new restrictions and potential fines on groups that conduct voter registration drives. Even the League of Women Voters took note of the misguided law and announced that after 72 years they would no longer be running their regular voter registration drive in that state.
Early voting periods also are very important for those who cannot afford to take time off work to vote. They allow people to vote prior to Election Day to avoid missed work days. But nine states have introduced legislation to end early voting periods and at least four have made efforts to reduce absentee voting opportunities, a key voting tool used by young adults away at college hoping to vote in their home state.
Additionally, Florida and Iowa passed legislation to disenfranchise citizens with previous felony convictions, making it extremely difficult to restore their voting rights upon release. This would particularly impact African American men who are more than five times more likely to be incarcerated.
These laws harm our democracy
Every election year, we are reminded that “every vote matters” and that our greatest right (and responsibility) as citizens of our democracy is to participate in our political process. Others across the world are fighting for that right. Our elected officials’ efforts, then, should be focused on spending more energy creating opportunities for more participation and not on creating additional barriers.
Vanessa Cárdenas is the Director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.