Why Are Voter IDs So Controversial?

On the twitters, lawyer Marc Elias offered what he perceived to be a strong condemnation of one facet of the Georgia law, that mail-in votes would require some form of identification to connect the person voting with the right to vote.

It wasn’t entirely clear what his beef was. Was the problem that voters were too dumb to figure out what the “DL NO.” was? Sure, mistakes could happen, but what was the real problem here? It was that any identification was necessary, and so picking at the edges of any choice was part of the battle against requiring identification to vote.

The rationale for identification is straightforward. In order to vote, you must meet qualifications, such as age and citizenship. You can only vote once. You can only vote for races in the jurisdictions where you reside. There are a few ways to make this work, one of which is to trust voters who show up at polls or mail in their votes to be honest, law-abiding voters. The other is to require voters to register in advance to vote and show that they meet the requisite qualifications, and then, when they vote, prove that the person casting the vote is the person entitled to do so.

This protects the integrity of the vote as well as the voter. Imagine showing up at the polls only to be told that you already voted and can’t vote again. You shout, “What?!?” as your civic right is stolen from you. The poll watcher shrugs. “Somebody said they were you. What was I supposed to do about it, ask for ID?”

The response to this is voter fraud rarely happens, which may be because Americans are so darn honest or because regulations and the diligence of poll workers did a good job of preventing any sort of mass effort to scam the vote. As efforts to significantly change the ways in which we vote, from excuse-free mail-in voting to early voting over a period of weeks, opportunities will present themselves that didn’t exist in the past.

Maybe good citizens and the political parties and candidates they love will be too honest to take advantage of them. Maybe not. If someone believes their team is so wonderful that it must win “at all costs,” this might not be too high a cost to pay, a bit of voter dishonesty for the good of society. It hasn’t happened yet, but it could.

We live in a society where identification is required for so many things. We can’t drive without a license. We can’t fly to Paris without a passport. We can’t open a bank account without an ID. If you want to enjoy a delicious 18-year-old smokey beverage at the Grassy Knoll Pub, you need to show ID. But these, the courts tell us, are “privileges,” whereas voting is a right. Aren’t IDs sufficiently ubiquitous that it’s just not an issue anymore?

  • Millions of Americans Lack ID. 11% of U.S. citizens – or more than 21 million Americans – do not have government-issued photo identification.
  • Obtaining ID Costs Money. Even if ID is offered for free, voters must incur numerous costs (such as paying for birth certificates) to apply for a government-issued ID.
    • Underlying documents required to obtain ID cost money, a significant expense for lower-income Americans. The combined cost of document fees, travel expenses and waiting time are estimated to range from $75 to $175.
    • The travel required is often a major burden on people with disabilities, the elderly, or those in rural areas without access to a car or public transportation. In Texas, some people in rural areas must travel approximately 170 miles to reach the nearest ID office.
  • Voter ID Laws Reduce Voter Turnout. A 2014 GAO study found that strict photo ID laws reduce turnout by 2-3 percentage points, which can translate into tens of thousands of votes lost in a single state.

For people who have no need to drive, there’s no reason (or ability) to get a driver’s license. Sure, there are other IDs available, but why get them if you don’t need them? That it may be a burden to some based on personal circumstance is true, but when did the right to vote become a right to effortless voting. Civic rights, which include voting and jury duty, involve some small degree of effort, at minimum, and a not insignificant degree of effort to do it right and fulfill our responsibilities as citizens. For example, it would be useful to maintain a vibrant democracy for voters to have a working knowledge of issues and the candidates’ positions on them, yet we don’t test for that anymore than we test the candidates’ grasp of constitutional rights.

When I first got my driver’s license, it was typed on a piece of fancy state-issued paper. It included my name and address, my height and weight. My eye and hair color. And not much else beyond a number. Since many of us were of similar appearance, it was fairly easy to game identification, such as when we wanted to spend an evening at the Tumble Inn despite only being 15 years of age. We just borrowed a friend’s license. Buying smokes was even easier, since they were in vending machines found everywhere.

Even when I was admitted to the bar, the only evidence of my joining the Guild was my good word. We had no bar cards or numbers. We had a fancy certificate on the wall, but it didn’t fit in our wallet so no judge ever asked for proof. We gave our appearance and the court accepted our word for it.

There are many people who are entitled to vote, a valued right of citizenship, who don’t possess whatever identification a government requires. Is it too much to require them to get one, get something, to prove they are who they say they are? Is it a “solution” in search of a problem? Why can’t we just trust each other? We used to trust each other before progress got in the way. If people don’t want to have to “show their papers” when engaging in other activities for which the Constitution provides no protection, why would exercising a civic right be any less worthy?

32 thoughts on “Why Are Voter IDs So Controversial?

  1. Angrychiatty

    They are controversial in part because they purport to address the problem of “voter fraud,” which does not appear to exist. When the claims of “rampant voter fraud” are put to the test in a court- requiring actual evidence- the proponents of these laws have nothing to back up their claims. For example, “How the Case for Voter Fraud Was Tested — and Utterly Failed” at ProPublica tells the story of the trial in Kansas.
    So when the reason for a new law turns out to be bogus, it makes me very suspicious- why do they really want these ID laws?

    1. Paleo

      Just because something can’t be proven doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Are you claiming that there is absolutely zero fraud associated with elections? Fraud has occurred in the past (ex: LBJ and box 13) and if anything it’s more likely now because our political parties have detached from reality and believe the entirety of the other side to be evil. Cheating to stop evil is virtuous.

      Proving that you are eligible to vote where you’re voting is the most minimal hurdle imaginable.

      And before you even go there because I must be the enmity, I think that Trump’s claims about the election are complete fantasy. I can’t imagine how anyone can believe them. But the folks that believe it are the type that would be inclined to cheat. As would the fervent woke.

          1. SHG Post author

            Your point was a good one, that now that voter fraud is on the table as means of undermining elections and manipulating outcomes, there is a far greater possibility that it will be used by someone (including, if not particularly, the Republicans) and thus providing a more compelling reason to make sure fraud does not become endemic.

            The argument that it wasn’t a problem before is the sort of idiocy that dooms us to “how could this possibly happen” after it happens. We use preventative measures to preclude it from happening, know it’s possible, not merely because it’s already happened and we want to prevent it from happening again.

            1. angrychiatty

              That is almost a decent point. Too bad the proponents of these laws have already blown their credibility on this point. Maybe if they hadn’t shot their wad screaming about the phantom hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants sneaking into the US to vote, people would be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, I can think of lots of restrictive laws that we could pass based on what “might” happen. Think of the children.

            2. SHG Post author

              Voter ID is the law in 36 states, and has been at issue long before Trump and continues to be at issue now. States are now dealing with laws to codify changes that arose as stop-gap measures out of the pandemic. It’s not just about Trump, and your inability to let go of your Trump obsession to appreciate that there remains issues to be addressed is more about you than the issue.

    2. Rengit

      What anti-voter fraud measures purport to tackle is preventative; it’s nearly impossible for a viable preventative measure to be proven as “bogus”, because the evidence of it “working” is that the problem doesn’t exist or is minimized. It’s speculation based on reason, so the only way the rationale for an anti voter fraud measure could be proven wrong is if voter fraud increases significantly after its enactment.

      If I’ve never had skin cancer, and my family has no history of it, but I worry about melanoma so I wear sunscreen everyday outside, then go on to never develop skin cancer, should I conclude that the reason for my wearing sunscreen was bogus?

      1. Angrychiatty

        If you haven’t clearly identified any prior “fraud,” you don’t know what measures such “fraud” has taken, or will take in the future, then what makes you so sure that the ID law will have any impact on preventing fraud? Your analogy is extremely weak for obvious reasons.

        1. Paleo

          Better to do nothing then.

          You didn’t answer my question. Is it your assertion that not a single person has ever voted in a election in which they weren’t entitled to vote? Or has never voted in place of someone else? It was a simple yes or no question, and you chose to ignore it.

  2. Richard Kopf

    The federal government should make a law that requires everyone to get an ID. Death panels cannot function properly without such a requirement.

  3. Steve White

    I live in California. For what it’s worth, I have personally seen a voter registration card for a person known to me to be a non-citizen. The person had lived nearly all of their life in the US, but was born to a foreign mother outside the US. A lot of people in California appear to be in similar circumstances. I do not know how many have voter reg cards, but it is happening. I believe they get the voter reg. cards to “prove” citizenship, that was the motive of the person I knew. And perhaps eligibility for public assistance is based on citizenship and residence, perhaps also “proven” by voter registration?

    Now, to address the post – My take is, most of the proposed new laws just do not seem very burdensome. And they apply to everyone. And they are not racially motivated. They may be motivated by partisanship, but not race. In answer to the questions posed, I think the new requirements are reasonable. Now, how can we get voters to do their research, and get candidates to respect the Constitution? Maybe make a passing grade in Civics a requirement for a high school diploma?

    1. SHG Post author

      There is always that one nefarious scoundrel, but does that make it a problem of such significance as to demand remedy? Then again, as you note, just because we have a civic right to vote does not mean anything that can be argued as requiring minimal effort is such an impediment as to amount to voter suppression. There was a time when we all had to go to the polls on the same day and pull a lever, yet we managed and each party, from time to time, managed to win.

  4. george

    In Texas, a photo ID is required to vote. If one does not have a photo ID and cannot reasonably get one, one may execute a Reasonable Impediment Declaration and present one of the supporting forms of ID.

    Here is a list of the supporting forms of ID that can be presented if the voter does not possess one of the forms of acceptable photo ID and cannot reasonably obtain one:

    copy or original of a government document that shows the voter’s name and an address, including the voter’s voter registration certificate;
    copy of or original current utility bill;
    copy of or original bank statement;
    copy of or original government check;
    copy of or original paycheck; or
    copy of or original of (a) a certified domestic (from a U.S. state or territory) birth certificate or (b) a document confirming birth admissible in a court of law which establishes the voter’s identity (which may include a foreign birth document).

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m sure someone will argue that there is a person, somewhere, who has none of these things to prove citizenship and right to vote, and no doubt it’s true. The question is whether we run a nation based on the problems of the most extreme outlier or based on the vast majority of citizens.

      1. Rengit

        There’s a lot of homeless people who have none of these forms of identification (sometimes by personal choice, sometimes involuntarily, and sometimes due to mental issues), and while the phrase “vulnerable/marginalized population” is overused, there’s not many groups it applies to better than the homeless.

        I don’t like disenfranchising a demographic that is already socially and economically disenfranchised in most other ways, but how do you empower a group of people to vote who tend to have no form of id, no fixed address, usually no job or bank account, and often move from place to place and city to city, without completely dismantling barriers against fraud and double voting? It would be extremely easy for political parties to bus homeless people from precinct to precinct, city to city, even state to state, to get extra votes.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s a real problem that deserves a real solution, such as a state/local outreach effort to provide them with a means of free ID. The question remains how someone with nothing can demonstrate residency or citizenship for voting purposes, and I don’t have an answer. At the same time, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to be concerned that their vote could be easily bought and abused by activists with a nefarious bent.

          1. Miles

            As you’ve made plain many times, no legal solution can fix every problem humanity can create. But is the problem really about facilitating voting by the homeless or is the problem being homeless?

            1. SHG Post author

              Will the problem of homelessness ever be solved? Can it be? And if not, do we give up on enabling voting by the homeless because it’s a secondary, if intransigent, problem? I dunno.

  5. Dan

    > But these, the courts tell us, are “privileges,” whereas voting is a right.

    So is buying and owning a gun, but you need ID to do that too (and to carry one, which many courts have also held is a right). Travel is also a right, but unless you’re going to do it on foot or as a passenger in a private vehicle, you still need ID to drive or to board Greyhound, Amtrak, or any flight.

    And I’m sorry, but the ACLU’s numbers are bullshit. They’d have us believe that 11% of the adult US citizen population (and their own number on this is 15 years old, so even if it were valid at that time, it doesn’t say much about today) hasn’t held a (legal) job in the last 35 years? Hasn’t opened a bank account of any kind in at least 20? Hasn’t had to cash a check? Hasn’t bought, sold, or rented a dwelling? Hasn’t established utility service? Gotten married? And, of course, don’t drive? That just isn’t believable. Sure, there will be some of whom it’s true. But 11% is a fantasy number.

    1. SHG Post author

      I wondered if anybody would pick up on that. I don’t know what the number is, and I can’t “disprove” their number, but like you, I don’t believe. Maybe 1.1%, and even that seems like a lot.

    2. Kurt

      How things have changed. I used to ride the dog at least once a month in the early ’80s, and never needed ID. Cash was quite good enough.

      Didn’t used to need ID to rent an apartment, either.

      Even now, depending on locale, purchasing a firearm in a private transaction doesn’t require ID, nor in many places is it needed for carrying, nor is making your own illegal.

      Voting is different however, because of the nature of the enterprise.

      I remain a staunch anti-Reaganite on voting: Verify, then trust.


    3. Terry Bressi

      While ID demands are ubiquitous in many aspects of every day life, it hardly serves as a panacea for all the problems they profess to solve while at the same time opening us up to any number of unintended consequences.

  6. MGould

    Voter ID laws only address one type of vote fraud, voter impersonation. It would only take one turn serving as an election judge to see why voter impersonation is virtually non-existent. In Maryland, for example, where election workers are forbidden from asking for ID in most cases, the impersonator must memorize the voter’s full name, street address, and birthdate. The impersonator must be sure that the voter hasn’t already voted, or voted absentee. And most perilously, since almost all election judges are local, the impersonator has to hope that none of the judges or a challenger know the voter being impersonated. All for what? A single vote. Not a very efficient way to cheat.

    Voting by mail bypasses these safeguards, and it’s much easier to create fraudulent mailed ballots in bulk, so it makes much more sense in that context. But requiring an ID for in-person voting is all downside with no benefit. I don’t find the argument that ID is required for other activities to be persuasive either. So what?

  7. Drew Conlin

    Since there’s some less than stellar comments here already I’m going to add mine. Do with it what you will_
    Get a damn ID! It’s necessary for all the things you et,al have listed, it’s useful in states where ID is required by police stops ( I believe there are some) and it makes it easy to vote should that be a thing.

  8. Curtis

    Mail in balloting is ripe for fraud (which does not mean it exists in large amounts.) I moved from one mail-in state (Oregon) to another (Washington) and back. Twice I received ballots from both states. I will receive my daughter’s ballots while she is in college.

    Neither driver license number nor signature check would prevent me from voting fraudulently. The opportunities are there for the unscrupulous.

  9. James

    All security measures are a balancing act between ease of access and security. Trust is not possible between (even honest) politicians looking to secure elections. Both voter suppression and ballot fraud have occurred in the past. ID, no same day registration, cleaning the voter roles all exist as an attempt to limit the number of official ballots printed to the number of real in district voters. Official ballots are required for ballot stuffing. ID, no same day registration, cleaning the voter roles all make it harder to access voting and provide avenues for voter suppression.

  10. Shadow of a Doubt

    Up here in Canada, your friendly northern neighbor, we don’t just trust each other, however we also don’t load any of the work to ID a voter on the voter. Here you get registered to vote whenever you change your address for any government function (get any id, pay taxes, register for any form of gov’t service or payment etc. it’s the same system they use for jury duty to my understanding), or you can email or snail mail elections Canada to get the form to manually change it for free, in case are a hermit who never makes use of any of these things, or you’ve moved close to an election and haven’t changed your address for taxes etc yet. Your “voter information card” is mailed to this address before elections.

    On election day, or when you go to get a mail in ballot, you bring that card (which has your name and address on it) and one piece of gov’t Id. If you don’t have an ID, you bring someone who does who vouches for your identity, if it later turns out that someone impersonated you, because you brought ID to prove that you are you, the person who vouched for the impersonator is charged with voter fraud along with the impersonator. You can also register at the polls, but this requires gov’t ID and a person to vouch for you.

    We also have a form of ID card which anyone can get at any service Ontario building (provincial services office, has all things like the DMV, health insurance etc. all rolled into one). It takes 20 minutes to get, costs $25 and lasts for 5 years (and counts as government photo ID anywhere that requires it).

    Simple, easy and no cost to the end user at any point. This is what a voter ID law that is designed to protect identities without disenfranchising anyone looks like. Now is it perfect? No. But it strikes a strong balance between security and access that most importantly, does not burden the voter to do so, while making it difficult to commit fraud without making it more difficult to vote.

    I’m jealous of a lot of the freedoms and rights you have in America that are privileges up here, but the way you handle elections and IDs has always boggled me.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments are subject to editing or deletion if I deem them inappropriate for any reason or no reason. Hyperlinks are not permitted in comments and will be deleted. References to Nazis/Hitler will not be tolerated. I allow anonymous comments, but will not tolerate attacks unless you use your real name. Anyone using the phrase "ad hominem" incorrectly will be ridiculed. If you use ALL CAPS for emphasis, I will assume you wear a tin foil hat and treat you accordingly. I expect civility from you, but that does not mean I will respond in kind. This is my home and I make the rules. If you don't like my rules, then don't comment. Spam is absolutely prohibited, and you will be permanently banned.