Practical and Historical Implications of Voter ID Laws

By Jennifer M. Tharp

When voters went to the polls last November, most had at least heard of the controversy over the changes in voter registration laws. Due to repeals and delays, voters at the polls felt little effects from the actual laws. In states that still required some form of identification, such as Virginia, contested ballots numbered only in the hundreds. The primary difficulties resulted from unclear information, reduced early voting hours, and long lines at the polls. There was more concern in Florida over the elimination of early voting the Sunday before the election, which many churches had previously used to encourage their congregations to vote. Voters only temporarily avoided the issue, however, as the laws could gain a foothold for future elections. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state Supreme Court suspended the photo identification requirement until this year, 2013. In this context, the precedent of voter identification laws still merits further practical and historical investigation. 

The controversy surfaced in 2011 when movements to prevent voter fraud began to succeed in proposing and passing state legislation that intended to ensure the legality of voters. The Brennan Center for Justice noted in its Election Update that forty-one states have introduced at least 180 bills since January 2011. According to Wendy Weiser and Diana Kasdan, twenty-five laws passed in nineteen states and represented approximately 231 electoral votes. These laws included measures such as ID requirements, proof of citizenship, registration limits, and reductions in early voting practices. All of these measures can make it exceedingly difficult for minorities, first time voters, students, the elderly, and the disabled to register and vote. These laws can be examined within a framework of the extent of voter fraud, the effects on voter eligibility nationwide, and past discriminatory voting practices.  

As the election approached, the extent of voter fraud became lost in the battleground of political parties. Conservative groups tended to support measures against voter fraud, whereas democratic groups argued that the laws disproportionately affected their voters. The question remained if these laws were truly necessary. Organizations like as True the Vote claimed they were and set up local grassroots chapters, recently accused of intimidating minority voters. According to Eric Lipton and Ian Urbina of the New York Times, however, a five year investigation of voter fraud by the Justice Department found little evidence of widespread voter abuse in 2007. Anyone who does commit voter fraud faces five years in prison and a fine of $10,000, which should serve as a deterrent. To provide two localized cases, the League of Women Voters of Minnesota found that only fourteen out of 2,800,000 voters (.0005 percent) in the 2004 election were fraudulent. In North Carolina, John DeLancy of the Voter Integrity Project challenged 500 registered voters he believed to be non-citizens. Of the 500, only three were not citizens, and only one had actually voted, as reported by Stephanie Saul for the New York Times. To be fair to both sides, there are legitimate concerns about the integrity of state voter registration lists. In February 2012, the Pew Center found that state voter lists contained more than 1.8 million deceased individuals, 2.8 million individuals registered in more than one state, and 12 million individuals with potentially flawed addresses.

After challenges from citizens groups, the Department of Justice, and voting groups, at least fourteen states have blocked, postponed, or overturned voting laws. These states include Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. In other states such as Michigan, voters without an ID may sign an affidavit swearing to their identity and then vote. Despite these changes, however, the Brennan Center reports that sixteen laws remain in place, affecting sixty-one percent of the nation’s electoral votes. The Brennan Center further noted that at least one third of female citizens do not have copies of their citizenship papers, and as many as eighteen percent of those eighteen to twenty-one years old do not have the required photo IDs. That left college campuses scrambling to help their students register to vote successfully before the 2012 election. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, before Pennsylvania changed the requirement Drexel University student IDs did not have the required dates, and officials had to issue stickers to add to the IDs. In Florida, where voter registration was limited, organizations such as Rock the Vote and League of Women Voters registered at least 100,000 fewer voters through drives than in previous years. A majority of those registered through drives tend to be minorities and students. 


Voter restriction discussions bring up unpleasant memories of the American past of voter suppression.  After the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 prohibited discrimination of voting by race, color, or servitude, while the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 extended voting rights to women. The amendments alone, however, did not guarantee respect of this right. From approximately 1877 to 1954, Jim Crow laws enforced segregation in the South in schools, hospitals, public buildings, and in voting. States enacted poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses that often excluded white voters from the same requirements. The challenger laws often find their origins in the late nineteenth century as well. Forty-six states still have challenger laws, which enable a citizen to challenge a registered voter’s right to vote. Often, the challenger does not have to provide any evidence, such as in the state of Michigan. Ohio’s own challenger law originated in 1868 and legalized challenging of any voter of African-American descent. In 2005, Ohio removed the right of poll observers to challenge voters due to targeted actions against African-Americans in the 2004 election. When viewed in the light of our nation’s past practices, the current debate over voter ID laws has troubling implications. 

Despite some legitimate concerns about voter fraud, it remains to be seen whether voter ID laws are an adequate and feasible solution. Based upon historical research and information gathered by the Brennan Center, restrictive voter ID laws would make it more difficult for underrepresented groups to vote and reduce voter turnout. Even though at least fourteen states have modified their laws to some extent, the legislation will continue to be debated. The decisions reached by state and federal governments will have far-reaching consequences for future elections. In the effort to ensure voter credibility, our country must also guarantee that the rights of American citizens are not abridged. 

Jennifer M. Tharp is a senior at Carnegie Mellon University majoring in ethics history and public policy. Carnegie Mellon is home to the Upsilon of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.