Fighting Voter ID

How our Election Systems Held up Under a High Turnout Election

This year election administrators, many of whom were fielding new voting equipment for the first time, faced record turnout.  After the pervasive problems with the previous two presidential elections and the fears of more election problems, both real and imagined, voters across the political spectrum faced the election with deep skepticism about its fairness and integrity.  Today we give a brief overview of whether the expectations for the election were born out, and what election day tells us about where to focus reforms.


Intimidating voters takes many forms, from videotaping or asking inappropriate questions of voters in a polling place, to placing heavily armed police outside poll sites and distributing threatening flyers announcing the penalties for voting fraud.  The intention is to make voting actually or apparently risky in order to keep people away from the polls.  Voter intimidation is illegal under federal law, and many state laws as well.  However, most laws are not clear on what constitutes intimidation and there is a need for clearly articulated standards at the state level to make sure that these laws cover all of the techniques used to threaten voters. 

  • During the 2008 presidential primary in Georgia, voters reported a roadblock on the way to one poll site, and an armed election inspector from the Secretary of State's Office was posted at another poll location.
  • In a 2003 Philadelphia mayoral race, hundreds of men with cars and clipboards that bore official-looking insignias were dispatched to polling places in predominantly African American neighborhoods.  In a poll conducted after the election, 7% of African American voters said they had encountered these men.
  • In 2004, the Election Protection Hotline received over a thousand complaints of voter intimidation or suppression.  The hotline reports that police outside a Cook County, Illinois, polling place were requesting photo ID and telling voters that if they had been convicted of a felony they could not vote.

People for the American Way — The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today
Project Vote — Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters
Advancement Project — Report to State and Local Election Officials on the Urgent Need for Instructions for Partisan Poll Watchers
Center for Policy Alternatives — Voter Protection Act
National Network on State Election Reform — Deceptive Practices and Intimidation Factsheet


Over the last ten years, states have passed dozens of laws requiring identification to vote.  The laws have been sold as a solution to voter fraud, but are truly designed for the simple purpose of suppressing the vote of groups less likely to have, or able to obtain the required ID — the poor, disabled, elderly, and racial and ethnic minorities.  And they have been designed in most instances not to apply to absentee balloting, where the small amount of election fraud that does occur is more likely to be perpetrated.  The starkly partisan purpose of these laws is made clear by the fact that they have been passed with party line votes everywhere they have been enacted. 

The vanguard of voter identification laws are requirements to provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote, and in some instances every time you vote. Seizing on fears of illegal immigration, conservative lawmakers are claiming that citizens are having their votes diluted by non-citizens. As with other voter ID requirements, the burdens of these laws are real and fall disproportionately on poor, disabled, elderly, and minority voters. Providing proof of citizenship is more onerous than even obtaining a photo ID. And as with fears of voter fraud generally, there is no evidence that non-citizens vote in significant numbers.

Now that the Supreme Court has countenanced voter ID laws, we are seeing a big surge in attempts to implement disenfranchising election rules.  Progressive lawmakers can respond to these renewed efforts by educating their colleagues and constituents about how these laws are merely a ploy to keep minority, poor, and less—educated voters from participating in elections, and the fact that the crisis these bills are supposed to solve —in-person voter fraud — is not a problem anywhere in the country. 

More proactively, legislators and advocates can change the nature of the debate by simultaneously debunking the voter fraud myths used to advance voter ID laws, and putting forward strong measures that combat the real threats to our elections and voting rights — efforts to suppress the vote such as voter intimidation and convoluted registration requirements.  When ID laws are proposed, voter protection and well-reasoned election integrity amendments should be offered as alternatives.  

Election day registration (EDR) is another amendment progressives can offer to counter voter ID legislation.If ID is to be required for voting, then progressives should at least try to expand the pool of potential voters.EDR extends the vote to citizens who have missed the voter registration deadline and would otherwise be unable to cast a ballot.  Unlike voter fraud, voter suppression activities — intimidating voters, spreading misinformation to prevent people from voting, and challenging the eligibility of groups of voters (called "voter caging") — are real practices that occur throughout the country.  Voter ID laws themselves open up new doors for voter intimidation and misinformation as ill-trained poll workers ask for ID that isn't required and partisans lie to voters about ID requirements in an attempt to discourage voting.  

Progressive States Network — The New Voter Suppression and the Progressive Response
Progressive States Network — The Specter of Fraud Helps the Right Wing Shape the Electorate
Brennan Center for Justice — Voter ID
Brennan Center for Justice — Policy Brief on Alternatives to Voter ID
Demos — Challenges to Fair Elections — Voter ID
NCSL — Requirements for Voter Identification
Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Project — Research Materials on Voter Identification
National Network for State Election Reform - Voter ID Factsheet


While the justification for passing these anti-immigrant laws was to save taxpayer money, follow-up studies have shown little evidence of any savings -- hardly surprising since there was little evidence beforehand that undocumented immigrants were receiving so many benefits.  ID requirements are usually so extreme that many legal citizens are turned away.  For example, Colorado passed a law that prevented state agencies from even accepting a U.S. passport as documentation to obtain a driver's license, leading to the irony that one of the state's main proponents of the bill saw his daughter rejected for a license. The sad result, as the National Immigration Law Center notes, is that "U.S. citizens are less likely than noncitizens to have the documents required by the new verification laws." (p.7)  While the law was amended to allow passports and a few other documents, the law has still inflicted burdens, both financial and personal on citizens of the state.

In fact, one study in Colorado found that the law there was costing the state an additional $2 million in increased administrative costs without any identifiable savings.  In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle highlighted that Kansas spent $1 million last year to comply with federal proof-of-citizenship requirements for the state SCHIP program and found only one undocumented immigrant using the program.  And as an article in USA Today emphasized, the reality is that anti-immigrant proposals may be discouraging families from getting early treatment for sickness or injuries, just increasing the cost when they show up at the hospital in an emergency. 

But, if such ID rules save the taxpayers little money, the impact on legal residents and citizens can be severe. This was highlighted when the federal government imposed new identification requirements for new applicants for Medicaid. The result?  Initial estimates were that 1.2 to 2.3 million citizens lacked the documents required by the new rules and were in danger of losing coverage.  Follow-up studies by both the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that Medicaid rolls declined in 44 states after Congress imposed the new requirements -- and most of those losing coverage were legal residents eligible for coverage but unable to produce the necessary documents.  For other social programs covered by the states with the new anti-immigrant laws, confusion and fear led people to lose other benefits.  States should commission their own studies to show the impact of benefit ID laws in hurting legal residents of their states.

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