Voter ID is Bad Public Policy
This past week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court voted to uphold Governor Scott Walker’s Voter ID law, which will require Wisconsinites to present a photo ID to vote. Governor Walker’s effort is part of a recent push by conservative state governments across the country to pass restrictive voter laws under the pretext of preventing voter fraud.
Interestingly, voter fraud is mostly a myth. In particular, photo ID laws can only prevent in-person voter fraud—where a voter pretends to be someone else —which is virtually non-existent. No one in Minnesota has ever been prosecuted for it. Consider this—who would risk a year in jail and up to a $10,000 fine just to cast an extra vote? Justin Levitt, a Constitutional Law Professor at Loyola Law School, has spent years researching voter fraud, and just recently published a report that documents 31 cases of alleged fraud that photo ID laws could have prevented, among over 1 billion votes cast in America since 2000.
That’s .000000031 percent.
We are doing this wrong. Sound voting laws achieve three goals: minimal fraud, maximal participation, and equal access. By this standard, voter ID is bad public policy: it only infinitesimally reduces voter fraud, actually decreases voter participation, and disproportionately reduces access for certain groups—the elderly, college students, African-Americans, Hispanics, and low-income people to name a few. These groups are less likely to have a photo ID, and more likely to face difficulties in acquiring one. And they can be quite difficult to get. This is part of the reason several judges have ruled voter ID laws unconstitutional. ID laws also cost states millions of dollars to implement. In an era characterized by painful state budget cuts, the spending these laws require is shameful.
In light of all this, it seems to many that the recent efforts to pass stricter voting laws by conservative state governments is actually a thinly veiled attempt to suppress voter participation among certain (growing) demographics that tend to vote democratic.
There are better ways to reform voting policies. We should ditch voter ID efforts and instead pursue policies that increase voter participation while keeping fraud as rare as it is. It is not a zero-sum game either. Increased participation does not have to come at the expense of voter integrity.
Higher turnout increases the quality of our democracy. Democratic governments are a reflection of the people who elect them. When more Americans vote, our government becomes more representative, less beholden to special interests and fervent partisans, and more accountable to the mainstream public’s will.
Minnesota is a leader in this regard. Thanks to sound voter laws and a vigorous tradition of civic engagement, we consistently have the highest voter turnout rates in the country. While Governor Walker’s Wisconsin is looking for ways to restrict voting access, we are looking for ways to expand it. This year, Minnesotans are allowed to vote by mail without needing an excuse. We can register online and track our ballots too.
It often takes a closer, longer look to correctly assess public policies. We saw this play out in our state with the 2012 Voter ID amendment. Initial support for the amendment was at around 80 percent. Once the implications of the amendment became clear to us though, we rejected it at the polls.
Admittedly, it seems intuitive, if not logical, to require voters to confirm their identity with a photo ID. But closer examination reveals that voter ID is really just an unnecessary and expensive partial solution to a virtually non-existent problem that actually makes it more difficult to vote. Efforts to get rid of early voting and same-day registration are similarly misguided.
In our state and across the country, instead of working to restrict voter access, we should be dreaming up ways to increase voter turnout. The quality of our democracy is at stake.