Voter ID laws are about protecting power, not fighting fraud

Written by Jack Mumby
Over the past few years, troubling new policies have been put into place that have the effect, if not the stated intent, of making it more difficult for citizens to vote. State legislatures have shortened early voting periods, ended election day registration, and purged eligible voters from the rolls. Most prominently, many states have begun to require voters to present photo identification at polling places, effectively disenfranchising the 11-12% of Americans who have no government-issued ID, and posing difficulties to transgender people whose identity may not match what is printed on their licenses or passports.

Because these policies selectively target communities that lack institutional power, they often enjoy the support of a public under the impression that voter fraud is a widespread problem requiring a drastic solution. However, photo ID policies only prevent impersonation of registered voters, and do nothing to address ballot stuffing, bureaucratic corruption, or the sale of absentee ballots. In-person impersonation is among the least common types of voter fraud; a recent study of elections in Wisconsin found that votes cast under an assumed identity comprised only .0002% of total votes cast, hardly enough to skew results meaningfully.

The undeniable fact that photo ID requirements do very little to address the already minor problem of voter fraud belies the justifications policymakers give for statutes like this. Worse yet, voter suppression initiatives have a disproportionately negative effect on groups that are already politically marginalized, including low-income people, young or elderly people, people of color, and people with disabilities. These two facts, when taken together, imply that these voter suppression statutes are less about preventing fraud and more an attempt to silence these constituencies, co-opting the democratic process’ role as a guarantor of equality and converting it into a means of deepening systems of privilege and social stratification.

There are, on the other hand, policy alternatives that could facilitate, rather than impede, Americans exercising their right to vote. Our electoral system, relying on opt-in paper registration and in-person voting, is woefully outdated, and desperately needs a complete overhaul. One possibility is the automatic registration of all eligible voters, which would make fraud much more difficult while simultaneously removing logistical barriers to voting. Other modernizations, including online registration and early voting, computerized maintenance of voter records, and statewide portability initiatives could help to ensure that no eligible voter would be turned away.


Jack Mumby is a 2012 graduate of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Policy and campaigned for wage justice and other progressive causes. He is currently working as an intern with Common Cause’s national office.

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