Herring: Controversy persists over voter ID laws
By Cedric Herring Guest Columnist September 5, 2012 7:40PM
Updated: October 7, 2012 8:00AM
Nothing is more fundamental to American democracy than the right to vote.
To protect it and try to prevent voter fraud, some state legislatures have passed laws requiring would-be voters to show state-recognized identification.
The first voter identification laws were passed in 2003, and 30 states now require some form of identification at the polls. The law in South Carolina is being tested in federal court after the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the law, arguing that it unfairly discriminates against black voters.
Voter ID legislation has been introduced in Illinois but has not advanced past the committee level.
Opponents of voter ID laws argue that they restrict the pool of eligible voters, make it harder for citizens to cast their ballots and disproportionately disenfranchise blacks, Latinos, the poor, students, the elderly and the disabled. Critics argue that these laws are really present-day voter suppression.
Voter fraud, it is important to note, does not appear to be a widespread problem. Between 2002 and 2005, only 26 substantiated cases of such fraud were prosecuted by the Justice Department.
What are the consequences of voter ID laws for access to voting? Research suggests that 11 percent of U.S. citizens — more than 21 million Americans — do not have government-issued photo IDs. But among minority groups, the percentage is higher.
Among blacks, 25 percent of voting-age citizens lack such identification compared with 8 percent of voting-age whites. More generally, voter ID laws disproportionately screen out voters who are low income and minority.
So it’s not surprising that voter ID laws are associated with lower voter turnout in states that have enacted them. It’s estimated that these laws have reduced overall voter turnout by more than 2 percent in those states.
Attitudes about voter ID laws are highly partisan. According to a Fox News poll, nearly half of Democrats believe that “supporters of voter identification laws are really trying to steal elections by decreasing legal votes from minorities.”
In contrast, seven in 10 Republicans believe that “opponents of voter identification laws are really trying to steal elections by increasing illegal votes by non-citizens and other ineligible voters.”
Every state that has passed a stricter voter ID law in recent years has done so under a Republican-controlled legislature, but a series of judicial rulings has struck down many of these laws, typically on grounds that they disenfranchise citizens.
While Illinois does not have a voter ID law, despite prior attempts to adopt one, the issue will likely appear before Illinois legislators again.
And both proponents and opponents will probably claim that they just want to protect citizens and their right to vote. They really just want to let the (right) people vote.
Cedric Herring is a member of the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in labor policies and racial discrimination issues.