Election Day is approaching and we’re really excited—and not just because the presidential campaigns will finally be over. We love voting. We love the hopeful energy, the powerful feeling of community as we come together in school gyms and local libraries all across the country to cast our votes—to participate in our democracy.
But here’s the thing: there are a lot of us, way too many of us, in fact, who won’t get to feel that way this year. Why? Because of the ridiculously unfair voter-suppression legislation passed in state after state that makes it difficult and sometimes nearly impossible for specific people—minorities, students, the elderly, the poor—to get out and vote.
What are these voter ID laws all about? And why are they so discriminatory? If you’re like us, you have a bunch of questions about why a democracy might want to keep its citizens from voting. Here’s what we were able to figure out.
What are voter ID laws?
Voter ID laws have been making headlines recently, but the concept itself stretches back to 1950. South Carolina was the first state to ask that voters present some form of ID (no photograph required) when voting. Hawaii, Texas, Florida, and Alaska followed South Carolina over the next 30 years, but all of the states allowed people to vote even if they did not have any ID. Things changed in 2008 when Georgia and Indiana became the first states to require a photo ID.
Don't all Americans have ID? What’s the big deal?
At first blush, the idea of having everyone identify themselves at the polls doesn’t seem too controversial, right? After all, ID is required for all sorts of transactions, everything from renting a car to obtaining a library card. The truth is, though, that while many of us may not find these voting requirements too difficult to manage, a policy can’t be judged solely on how the affluent or comfortable handle it. We have to ensure that everyone else has access and opportunity, too. And studies have shown some people in this country are far less likely to have a valid ID than others.
Why is it so hard to get an ID?
Now that 34 states have passed some form of voter-ID legislation, it’s become clear that voters are not equally able to obtain ID cards. A Brennan Center study revealed that many eligible voters live far from ID-issuing offices and don’t have access to a car or other transportation options. Beyond the challenge of merely getting to such an office, millions of these voters are poor and have trouble paying the fees that come with acquiring IDs.
OK, that’s too bad, but how are these laws discriminatory?
Eric Holder, the Attorney General at the time, called Texas’s 2011 voter ID law a “poll tax” (harkening back to the Jim Crow era) because it essentially forced ID-less citizens to buy one for the sole purpose of voting. And while most white voters in Texas already have a valid form of ID, large numbers of minorities—including 25% of African-Americans—do not. Voter ID requirements regularly disenfranchise students, racial and ethnic minorities, low-income citizens, and the elderly. A federal appeals court recently struck down North Carolina’s voting law, saying that it targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.” There are countless other examples of bias and discrimination in our election laws and practices.
But don’t we need these laws to fight rampant voter fraud?
No. Because voter fraud is basically a myth. More people are hit by lightning every year than commit in-person voter fraud (the only kind of fraud these voter ID bills address). A thorough investigation found that, out of a billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014, there were only 31 credible “incidents” of potential fraud.
But don’t we need these laws to make sure that noncitizens don’t vote in our elections?
No. Only American citizens are allowed to vote in American elections. And there is no evidence that there’s been any widespread or coordinated attempt by noncitizens (that includes people who are here legally and people who are here illegally) to cast votes.
But don’t voter ID laws reduce the risk of our elections being “rigged”?
Some candidates for office have brought up the specter this year of the election being “rigged,” usually in the context of why we need more, and more restrictive, voter ID laws. It goes without saying that, again, there’s no evidence to support such claims. BUT, on the other hand, it is equally as clear that voter ID laws themselves do have an impact: they decrease turnout, especially among people of color. Claiming that we need to fight a nonexistent threat with policies that actually do pose a threat—that’s some Halloween-level spooky right there.
Well, what’s the point of these laws, then?
Political gain. It so happens that the people these laws target tend to vote against the interests of the corporate-funded politicians who support them. It’s really that simple—not to mention outrageously antidemocratic. Some politicians have even accidentally let slip this true reasoning behind these laws.
Democracy only works when it works for everyone. Voter ID laws have no place in any democracy worth its name. Join us in the fight for free and fair elections.