In Response to a Defense of Voter ID Laws

Originally published 9/23/12 in the JHU Politik.

I write this piece in response to Christopher Winer’s opinion featured in last week’s issue entitled, “Making Your Vote Count Through Voter ID Laws.” Winer argues that Voter ID laws are “common sense”, that they would work to “inspire public confidence” in our electoral system, and that the laws really pose only a “minor problem” to voters who lack proper identification.

I beg to differ.

I am from Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in this upcoming election; Pennsylvania is also currently the state with the strictest Voter ID law in the country. While not all states with Voter ID laws have the same requirements, I will focus on Pennsylvania here because it’s often at the center of this national debate.

Winer insists that although these laws might at the most be a “minor infringement of freedom,” overall they are ultimately worth it.

First it is worth considering, why would they be hypothetically “worth it?” One might answer: these laws work to prevent in-person voter fraud. However Pennsylvania has already ruled in court proceedings that there has been no evidence of an issue with in-person voting fraud in the state. So these laws are quite a risky “preventative solution” to a non-existent problem.

For many, obtaining an ID is truly difficult. This summer I worked at home as an Organizing Fellow on the Obama re-election campaign; the confusing and continually revised Voter ID law was a key concern for voters and organizers on almost a daily basis. I recall one instance where a frustrated middle-aged man came into the Obama office, identified himself as a high school English teacher, and asked in exasperation, “Where can I find a DMV that actually issues these IDs? I moved here recently and I’ve driven to four different DMV centers today and none of them offer photo ID services!” This anecdote was extremely telling. This man, who had the money, time, and means to travel to at least five different DMVs, still struggled greatly to obtain an ID. A majority of individuals who lack proper identification have none of these three things.

In Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, nine rural counties have no DMV centers at all. In an additional 20 counties containing 1.5 million people, Driver’s License centers are open three or fewer days a week. (13 counties have DMVs only open one day per week.) Also, only seven out of 67 total counties have more than one DMV center.

In the Pennsylvania lower-court decision on this issue, Judge Simpson wrote that the number of registered voters without valid voter ID falls “somewhat more than 1 percent and significantly less than 9 percent”, or in other words, anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 registered Pennsylvanian voters.

I agree with Winer that we should clean up the voter registration rolls, among other things. We should be working to enforce laws for problems we have, not problems we don’t have. Stephanie Singer, chair of the Philadelphia City Commission (which runs elections in the city) argues that the voter ID law specifically creates more problems than it fixes. “If this legislature were serious about [voter fraud], they would be funding poll worker training, data forensics, [and] aggressive investigation of the voter registration lists,” Singer tells KYW Newsradio.

What I find most ironic about Winer’s piece was his suggestion that in order for the government to reimburse travel costs to the DMV, individuals should present a utility bill or a bank statement to prove they are who they say they are. Or in other words, the forms of identification that used to be acceptable and legitimate enough to vote now are only good enough to get reimbursed.

You know what would inspire public confidence in our electoral system for me? If we advocated for a system where registered American citizens were easily able to exercise their right to vote—ensuring that we really have moved past the dark days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and unabashed disenfranchisement of women and minorities. If people think we need Voter IDs in order to instill confidence, then over the next few election cycles let us work to phase that process in responsibly. But if we want to ensure that all registered citizens will be able to cast their ballot in the upcoming election, we must admit that there is no way this nation will be ready to handle the proposed ID laws by November 6th. It is simply logistically infeasible.