Efforts to prevent voter fraud seem like commonsense measures to ensure the integrity of our voting system. However, the problem with “commonsense” is it does not require in-depth study of the issue. Commonsense is based on “simple perception of the situation or facts.”(1)
Since 2011, at least 34 states have introduced legislation requiring voters to show government-issued voter identification (enacted in seven states), at least 11 states introduced legislation to show proof of citizenship (enacted in three states), and at least 13 states introduced legislation to make it harder to register to vote (enacted in six states). (2)
Why in a nation that saw only 61.6 percent of the eligible electorate vote in the 2008 presidential election would we want to make it harder to vote?(3) Are these really commonsense measures to ensure the integrity of our election system? Or unnecessary efforts that will deter or deny legally entitled citizens the most direct way to participate in the democratic process — voting?
To those who think the critics of voting restriction laws are making a big deal out of nothing, consider the history of voting rights in the United States. Our history is one of exclusion, with long, hard-fought battles to enfranchise all U. S. citizens. In 1776, our founding fathers only granted white men with property the right to vote, excluding Catholic, Jewish, and Quaker men (4).
Through the denial of citizenship, Chinese, Native Americans, Japanese, and Hindus, were denied the right to vote. Enactment of the 15th Amendment in 1870 granted freed slaves and other African American men the right to vote. Many southern states responded by restricting access through poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and violence to prevent the free exercise of the right to vote.
In 1920, after a 70-year struggle, women were granted the right to vote. In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act “permanently barring direct barriers to political participation by racial and ethnic minorities”(4). For people alive today who fought for the Voting Rights Act, or lost loved ones in the struggle, current efforts to restrict the right to vote is not ancient history and is very personal. Given our history, it should not be surprising the intentions of proponents of such restrictions are suspect.
Despite claims to the contrary, there is no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud (5). When pressed, proponents of the various voting laws are unable to provide credible evidence, rather rely on isolated incidents or claim their intention is to prevent such problems. Read the Brennan Justice Center’s report The Truth About Voter Fraud (http://brennan.3cdn.net/e20e4210db075b482b_wcm6ib0hl.pdf) and An Agenda for Reform (http://brennan.3cdn.net/39c28dc05a468de933_2om6bh0aa.pdf).
A photo identification will prevent impersonation at the polls, however the occurrence of such impersonation is less likely than being struck by lightning, according to the Brennan Center report. Many people mischaracterize problems with administration of the election system as “voter fraud (5). Voter fraud occurs when an individual casts a ballot despite knowing that they are ineligible to vote”(5).
Being listed on voter registration in two jurisdictions is not evidence of voter fraud. It is only voter fraud if a person votes in both jurisdictions. How many people move and never contact their previous jurisdiction to be removed from the rolls? Focusing on essentially a “non-problem” detracts from legitimate election administration problems grounded in credible evidence (5)(6).
Some people contend requiring voters to provide government issued photo identification will not restrict the right to vote. Commonsense might lead one to conclude that because I have a driver’s license, everyone must have one. Because I have the means to get to the DMV, to produce a birth certificate, everyone must have the same ability. When we go beyond a simple examination of the issue, — read The challenge of obtaining voter identification (http://brennan.3cdn.net/f5f28dd844a143d303_i36m6lyhy.pdf) — obtaining the required identification is not so simple for all — particularly people who live in rural areas, older adults and people with disabilities.
In the 10 states with restrictive voter ID laws, “More than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest state ID-issuing office”(7). For many people it is a significant burden and may be impossible to obtain the specific government issued identification required by their particular state.
Before Minnesota joins the ranks of the others states that have passed voter identification laws and other measures to restrict the right to vote, it is each eligible voter’s civic duty to study the issue using credible sources and ask tough questions of those wishing to restrict the right to participate in the democratic process.
I think of all of my sisters and brothers who went before me who fought for my right to vote — a right I judiciously exercise — and I know I do not want to be responsible for denying any eligible citizen the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.
Nancy M. Fitzsimons is a professor of Social Work at Minnesota State University and lives in North Mankato. The electronic version of this story contains source footnotes.
1. Merriam Webster Dictionary.com
2. Weiser, W. R., & Norden, L. (2012). Voting law changes in 2012. Brennan Center for Justice, New York University Law School. Retrieved from http://brennan.3cdn.net/92635ddafbc09e8d88_i3m6bjdeh.pdf
3. United States Election Project. Retrieved from http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2008G.html
4. ACLU. (2005, March 4). Timeline: Voting Rights Act Timeline. Retrieved from http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/voting_rights_act_timeline20111222.pdf
5. Leavitt, J. (2007, November 9). The truth about voter fraud. Brennan Center for Justice, New York University Law School. Retrieved from http://brennan.3cdn.net/e20e4210db075b482b_wcm6ib0hl.pdf
6. Weiser, W. R., & Goldman, J. (2007). An agenda for election reform. Brennan Center for Justice, New York University Law School. Retrieved from http://brennan.3cdn.net/39c28dc05a468de933_2om6bh0aa.pdf
7. Gaskin, K., & Iyer, S. (2012, July 29). The challenge of obtaining voter identification. Brenna Center for Justice, New York University Law School. Retrieved from http://brennan.3cdn.net/f5f28dd844a143d303_i36m6lyhy.pdf