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Voter Identification Laws: Safeguard or Barrier?

by Andrea Senteno, Jun 27, 2008
photo by Amy Pritchett
New York currently only requires proof of identity for new voters.

The Supreme Court recently upheld an Indiana law requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. Indiana is one of 27 states across the country doing this, seeming to signal a trend for states to set identification requirements to vote.

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New York currently has no such law and only requires proof of identity for new voters, as mandated in the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). But New York State is not immune to a growing sentiment that measures need to be taken to safeguard the vote against fraud. Last week the New York State Senate passed a bill (S. 6543), which would require all registrants to provide proof of citizenship. Although there is little chance this would pass in the Assembly, the proposal is indicative of the growing debate about voter fraud and identification.

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Proponents of strict requirement believe that showing identification will prevent election fraud and voting by illegal immigrants. Many advocates, though, say there is no evidence that voter fraud poses a significant problem or threatens the integrity of the voting system.

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What's Required

HAVA made sweeping changes to elections across the country, requiring that states update their voting systems, implement statewide voter databases and ensure equal voting rights to the disabled. The federal law also requires that new voters need to provide some form of identification at the polls before they cast their ballots for the first time. A number of different forms of identification can be used, including a valid photo identification, current utility bill, bank statement, government check, pay check or another government document that shows the name and address of the voter.

Some states have taken the measure one step further, believing that the basic requirements of HAVA are not enough. They are demanding a photo ID. In some cases, they have also extended the identification requirement beyond new voters to all voters. Currently, 27 states require identification from all voters in order to cast a ballot. Nine of these states require a piece of photo identification.

The Voter Fraud Problem

In April, the Supreme Court in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board addressed the constitutionality of the Indiana law that required voters to present photo identification. Plaintiffs argued that a photo identification law places an undue burden on voters who do not have acceptable voter identification cards. The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled to uphold Indiana's law.

"The burden on voters [is] offset by the benefit of reducing the risk of fraud," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens. He noted that Indiana has a legitimate and important interest "in deterring and detecting voter fraud ... protecting public confidence in elections," because of incidents in the state where people who were deceased or did not live in Indiana voted in recent elections. Furthermore, since Indiana's voter cards are free and those who are unable to obtain a photo ID can vote through a provisional ballot, the court found that the law "does not qualify as a substantial burden on most voters' right to vote."

New York Senator Chuck Schumer described the Supreme Court ruling upholding the nation's strictest voter-identification law as "a blow to what America stands for."

You're a Citizen? Prove It

Another approach requires residents to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote. Currently, Arizona is the only state that does this.

The New York State Senate bill would institute this requirement here as well. New Yorkers would be forced to provide proof of citizenship when they registered to vote. It would leave the responsibility of deciding which forms of citizenship would be acceptable to the state Board of Elections. In Arizona, registrants are required to provide an original birth certificate, naturalization papers or a passport.

Sen. John Flanagan, the bill's main sponsor, explained during debate on the senate floor, "We impose stringent requirements for driver's licenses, for U.S. passports, and frankly I don't think we should be doing anything less when it comes to voting." New York Senators Serphin Maltese and Frank Padavan, both from Queens, cosponsored the bill.

The proposal in the Senate has sparked a heated debate about the consequences of enacting this type of law in a state like New York with a largely diverse and mobile population.

Voting rights advocates argue the tougher identification laws could have a large effect on citizens living in urban areas, such as New York City. Since many city dwellers do not have a driver's license, they could have a difficult time trying to obtain an acceptable photo ID. New Yorkers, many of whom come from other nations and other parts of the country, also could have a hard time getting their birth certificates.

Critics worry that requiring voters to provide citizenship materials to register or photo identification to vote may result in the disenfranchisement of low-income, disabled, elderly and minority voters. Unlike the Indiana law, which provides for free voter ID cards, Bill S.6543 puts the burden on the potential voter to provide proof of citizenship.

During debate over the bill, Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan questioned the necessity for such a bill in New York. "What empirical data do you have in New York State regarding voter fraud?" he asked. Flanagan responded, "Right in front of me, I don't have anything at my disposal."

The Threat of Fraud

As in New York, over laws on voter identification revolves around how many people who are not eligible to vote try to cast ballots.

Between October 2002 and September 2005, the Justice Department indicted 40 people for registration fraud or illegal voting. A 14-month investigation by the federal government proved that at least 624 non-citizens have registered to vote.

Others argue that these numbers may not be indicative of actual instances of voter fraud. Dilan noted, "The League of Women Voters of the State of New York have indicated that in a four-year period between 2002 and 2006 only 24 people have been convicted nationally of voter fraud." In an amicus brief the the Brennan Center for Justice wrote, "Voting by non-citizens is a rare and isolated occurrence."

In 2007 a report published by the Election Assistance Commission received national attention after the writers claimed their version of the report was altered to weaken their assertion that voter fraud was largely unsubstantiated.

Voting rights advocates points to cases like that of Lillie Lewis, a voter who lives in St. Louis but was born in Mississippi. She said she found it difficult to get the photo identification needed to vote because officials in Mississippi had no record of her birth. "I have voted in almost all of the presidential races going back I can't remember how long, but if they tell me I need a passport or birth certificate that'll be the end of that," she told a press conference.

With increase concern among Americans about security and immigration, though, there is support in many states for the tougher requirements. The Arizona secretary of state has said his state's law is "broadly popular" and that "voters feel strongly about proof of citizenship when registering to vote as a basic eligibility requirement."

The debate surrounding voter identification and proof of citizenship reflects a larger ideological discussion between Republicans and Democrats about access to voting. Those on one side cite reports of grandmothers being denied the right to vote. Their adversaries point to cases of deceased voters casting ballots. The voters, meanwhile, get caught in the middle as states try to find a way to ensure the integrity of the vote while protecting the right to vote.