In the Jim Crow South, the “Powers-That-Be” had ways of preventing blacks from voting: poll taxes and literacy tests. The Supreme Court and Congress eliminated those obstacles decades ago, but today there is a new way of keeping eligible voters from casting ballots: overly restrictive voter ID laws.
Pennsylvania recently adopted a new voter ID law that critics say could prevent as many as 1.5 million people from voting. A new Texas law could disenfranchise about as many. Eleven states have adopted new voter ID laws just since the 2010 elections. By one estimate, as many as 10% of eligible voters nationwide lack the documentation required by voter ID laws.
There is a simple solution to this problem. It is time for congress to create a federal ID card that would guarantee people the right to cast a ballot.
Election laws and policies are for the most part set by the states. States have traditionally been easygoing about voter ID — and many still are. There is no actual need to tighten voter ID rules: there have been extraordinarily few instances of people committing fraud at the polls. One study found that more Americans are killed by lightening in a year than are convicted of federal election fraud.
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The real reason tough new voter ID laws are cropping up across the country is that they make it difficult for anyone without drivers’ licenses to vote — often very difficult. In some parts of Texas, people have to drive 200 miles roundtrip to get the ID they need. In some states, it can cost as much as $25 to get necessary documentation to vote. The state poll taxes that the Supreme Court struck down in the 1960s cost about $10 in current dollars.
Voter ID laws have a disproportionate impact on groups that lean democratic — including blacks, hispanics and students. In honest moments, backers of voter ID laws will admit what they are up to. Last month, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said that the state’s new voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win Pennsylvania.”
Meanwhile, legal challenges to voter ID laws have not fared well. In 2008, the Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Indiana’s voter ID law. The court said that there was not enough evidence that the law was stopping eligible voters from casting ballots. (A few weeks later, 10 elderly nuns were barred from voting in Indiana because they lacked proper ID.)
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Voting in presidential and congressional elections is a national right — and the national government should protect it. In the Civil Rights Era, Congress took on this role: it passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure that blacks in states like Mississippi and Alabama were able to vote. Now, the federal government should step in and make national voter ID cards available to ensure that voters in states with tough ID laws are not disenfranchised.
The federal government could establish more voter-friendly rules for such an ID. It could ensure that voters do not have to pay for the ID or the underlying documents. These IDs could be dispensed at post offices, which are located in every community. The government could even proactively send them out to citizens when they turn 18.
Not that a national voter ID card doesn’t have some potential problems which would have to be avoided. It should not replace state voter IDs — it should simply be an alternative. That way, people who currently have ID that allows them to vote would not have to jump through a new hoop. And national voter ID should not become a mandatory national ID card — something civil libertarians rightly oppose for having police-state overtones. It should be strictly optional.
Voter ID laws that exclude eligible voters have become just another partisan election tactic — like super-PAC fundraising or TV attack ads. That violates one of the most essential principles of American democracy — that, as the Declaration of Independence declares, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Supporters of tough voter ID laws are not afraid of vote fraud — they are afraid of democracy.