Proof at the Polls: The Requirement to Show Photo Identification before Voting Is Gaining Popularity

By Underhill, Wendy | State Legislatures, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

Proof at the Polls: The Requirement to Show Photo Identification before Voting Is Gaining Popularity


Underhill, Wendy, State Legislatures


On the day the Missouri General Assembly passed his elections legislation, Senator Bill Stouffer made clear what he hoped the bill would accomplish.

"Our goal was not to make it hard to vote," he said. "It was to make it easy to vote but hard to cheat."

The legislation puts a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot that would allow Missouri to establish a photo voter ID law. If approved, Missouri will have one more reason to call itself the "Show Me State."

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The "easy to vote/hard to cheat" quip seems like a universal American principle, yet it was made in the context of one of this year's most contentious political issues.

Voter ID is shorthand for laws that require voters to present some form of identification before they can cast a ballot, and it's a political hot potato precisely because it gets at the heart of American democracy. Everybody has the right to vote; but exactly how everybody votes is for state legislatures to decide including what identification is required.

Those who want to require voters to show identification, especially with a photo, say it's a reasonable measure to prevent fraud.

"Even where there isn't a problem, there's a perception that there's a problem," says Stouffer. Passing this legislation is a way to boost confidence, he says, in the election system.

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Opponents counter that little evidence exists to show voter fraud by impersonation is a serious problem. More important, they argue, is that voter identification requirements could make it harder for some lawful voters--especially the elderly, students, poor people and minorities--to vote. They also argue the costs associated with requiring voter ID may be difficult to calculate but are totally unnecessary.

Republicans more often support the requirement, while Democrats tend not to. Yet in Missouri, the distinction was blurred. The bill married photo voter ID requirements with early voting provisions.

"It was a compromise," says Stouffer. "The Rs wanted the photo ID, and the Ds wanted early voting."

LAWS VARY

Voter ID requirements fall on a continuum. At one end are states such as New York that ask voters only to state their name and address, and sign the poll book so the signature can be verified against a digital signature. At the other end is Kansas, which will require voters to begin showing a photo ID in 2012 and to prove citizenship before registering to vote starting in 2013.

And in between? States use many ways to verify voter identity, and only some rely on a government-issued photo ID.

Still, there is a trend toward requiring more proof at the polls. In 2001, 16 states asked for some form of ID. Four wanted a photo ID, and 12 accepted other forms, such as Social Security cards, bank statements or utility bills. Voters who did not have IDs were permitted to vote by affidavit.

By 2010, 27 states asked for ID, eight specifying one with a photo, and 19 accepting other forms. Indiana and Georgia require a photo and, if a voter can't show one, he or she must cast a provisional ballot that isn't counted unless the voter presents an acceptable photo ID at an elections office within a few days after the election.

Voter ID legislation was introduced in 34 states in the 2011 session, including many that already require non-photo IDs.

At press time, six states--Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin--have either enacted new photo ID laws or added a photo requirement to existing voter ID laws.

Texas passed legislation this session to require a photo ID to vote, but it will take effect only after approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Representative Dan Flynn supports legislation so "everybody gets to vote once, and you can't be dead to vote."

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A QUESTION OF FRAUD

How much fraud exists'? …

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