"To disregard the impact of voting laws on various racial groups would be, at best, irresponsible and, at worst, perilous" (Quillin 23). Voter ID laws, more aptly described as voter impersonation laws, are regulations implemented to deter fraudulent voting. These laws primarily focus on in-person voting and provide little protection against mail-in and absentee voter fraud. Originating from discriminatory practices targeted at already disenfranchised groups, these laws ultimately harm voters such as people of color, the elderly, and the youth. While touted as essential, voter ID laws are potentially detrimental to American democracy.
Voter ID Laws in America: Pros and Cons
In contemporary times, voter ID laws require voters to present identification before casting their ballots. These laws have their roots in the early stages of American democracy, marked by practices such as poll taxes, white primaries, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause. However, significant progress was made with pivotal legal cases such as Smith v Allwright in 1944, which outlawed white primaries, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with the 24th Amendment, which declared poll taxes unconstitutional. The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 empowered the national government to determine voting qualifications and intervene in state and local elections as needed. Additionally, the Act's preclearance provisions required covered counties to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementing changes in election laws (Bowman 73).
Between 1950 and 1980, five states, including South Carolina, Hawaii, Texas, Florida, and Alaska, initiated voter ID requirements without photographs, merely requesting documents with the voter's name. By 2000, this number had expanded to fourteen states. While the 2000 presidential election spurred reforms in the electoral process through the Help America Vote Act, it is essential to note that this legislation did not directly address voter fraud concerns related to identification. Subsequently, the Carter-Baker commission, led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, recommended photo ID requirements for all voters, an early precursor to modern-day voter ID laws, although Congress did not act upon this recommendation.
Following the 2005 commission's suggestion, certain states, such as Georgia and Indiana, introduced strict voter ID laws, requiring voters to present valid identification for a regular ballot. The types of accepted IDs vary by state, with some allowing non-photo identification, like bank statements, as long as it includes the voter's name and residence. Other states have non-strict voter ID laws, allowing alternative means of identity verification, such as signing an affidavit or having poll workers vouch for the voter. Despite these variations, most states with strict voter ID requirements still make exceptions for individuals with religious objections to being photographed.
Arguably, one of the most significant court cases concerning voter ID laws was Shelby County v Holder in 2013. This decision declared section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, removing the preclearance provision that required states with a history of discrimination to seek federal approval for new voting procedures. While the majority opinion asserted that the country had changed and the provision was no longer necessary, the dissenting opinion emphasized the significant number of discriminatory voting changes struck down under the Voting Rights Act between 1982 and 2006 (Quillin). Following this decision, the number of states with voter ID laws rose to twenty by 2016.
Despite the intense debate surrounding modern-day voter ID laws since their inception in the early 2000s, there is scarce evidence to support their need for preventing voter fraud. Various studies have indicated that voter fraud, particularly voter impersonation, is exceedingly rare. For instance, research by Arizona State University from 2000 to 2012 found virtually no instances of voter fraud. Another study conducted by the same institution between 2012 and 2016 in five states also yielded no evidence of voter fraud (Quillin). Nevertheless, politicians have cited a few reasons to justify the necessity of voter ID laws, including restoring public confidence in the electoral system. However, studies have shown that perceptions of fraud do not impact an individual's likelihood of voting. Additionally, while some argue that photo IDs are common and essential for various activities, research by the Brennan Center for Justice indicated that as many as 11 percent of eligible voters lack government-issued photo IDs, disproportionately affecting seniors, people of color, low-income adults, students, and people with disabilities.
Historically, African Americans have faced significant discrimination in the United States, and this discrimination continues to manifest in voter ID laws, disproportionately affecting this group. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), up to 25% of African American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo IDs, compared to only 8% of whites (Oppose Voter ID Legislation). In 2013, North Carolina passed a law that made extensive changes to their voter ID and voting practices, which were later struck down in 2016 due to their discriminatory impact. These changes included more restrictive photo ID requirements and the elimination of voting practices that African Americans disproportionately used, such as out-of-precinct voting and pre-registration (Quillin).
Moreover, transgender individuals face challenges with voter ID laws when their presented gender does not match the gender on their identification. The U.S. Transgender survey revealed negative experiences reported by 32% of transgender respondents when attempting to cast ballots with mismatched IDs (Moreau).
To rectify these issues, it is essential to overturn the decision in Shelby County v Holder and reinstate the preclearance provision. This would allow Congress to regulate new voting practices and curtail discriminatory measures. Additionally, the focus should shift toward addressing absentee and mail-in voter fraud, which has a higher potential to influence election outcomes. Strict voter ID laws, as they currently stand, may infringe upon the fundamental right and privilege of voting for citizens of the United States. Protecting this right should be a priority, and lawmakers should work collectively to implement fair and effective voting laws that respect the diverse electorate.
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