‘Voter ID’ Is Hardly a Civil-Rights Matter

July 6, 2010

For release Tuesday noon July 6 and thereafter (663 words)

I don’t want 19-year-olds buying alcoholic beverages any more than I want non-citizens or dead people diluting the power of my vote. That’s why I don’t mind showing my driver’s license when I purchase a six-pack or when I go to the polls on Election Day.

In a somewhat ironic coincidence, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s 2005 “Voter ID” law on Wednesday, and on Thursday the state’s strict new booze-buying law took effect. The identical argument can be made for both. Just as the liquor law eliminates guesswork for store clerks charged with carding potential underage drinkers, the voter-ID law eliminates guesswork for poll workers whose job is to verify the identity of registered voters. Requiring a photo ID makes that job easier and protects the right to vote for everyone.

Unfortunately, legal challenges may not be over — even though our voter law has been upheld by strong majorities of the U.S. Supreme Court (6-3) and Indiana Supreme Court (4-1). It didn’t help that our state court practically invited another suit. The justices ruled that in the case before them — brought by the League of Women Voters — there was no evidence that the law infringed anyone’s right to vote but said “we do not foreclose” complaints by voters who may find themselves hurt by the photo-ID requirement in the future. You can bet the naysayers will start plotting immediately to devise a situation in which a person cannot obtain the necessary ID and is stopped from voting in the next election.

Enough already. For five years, Hoosier taxpayers have financed the defense of this law, which was carefully crafted to protect the right to vote. It requires voters at the polls to show a government-issued photo ID, which critics say handicaps the poor, minorities and the elderly. Their argument is specious. Indiana offers free IDs to citizens who can establish their identity; the elderly who live in state-licensed facilities that serve as polling sites are exempted from the law as are people who vote absentee, which would include shut-ins. Exceptions are permitted for people who are indigent or who have religious objection to being photographed as long as they file an affidavit to that effect. Folks who can’t produce ID can vote on provisional ballots with their eligibility to be determined after they vote, as mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act.

The persistent legal challenges ignore the sentiment of Indiana voters, 75 percent of whom favor the requirement. That mirrors national poll numbers, which show support for voter ID coming from every group, regardless of race, party or ideology. Seventy percent of blacks and even 51 percent of “very liberal” voters support voter ID.

There’s no denying that poll workers in decades past used their discretion to keep blacks from voting. Discriminatory laws like poll taxes and literacy tests blatantly suppressed blacks’ votes. But that is not the effect of today’s voter-ID practices.

In the most extensive study conducted on the subject, the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES) of 2006 found no evidence of voter exclusion, whether based on strict laws like Indiana’s or on poll worker discretion. Out of a national sample of 36,500 people, only 23 said they were not allowed to vote because of voter-ID issues. Notably, when checking IDs was based on poll worker discretion rather than legal mandate, blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites to be asked to show ID. But they were not more likely to be kept from voting.

“Voter identification is the controversy that isn’t,” wrote Stephen Ansolabehere, the MIT political science professor who presented the CCES findings in a 2007 paper. “Almost no one is excluded by this requirement and, when problems arise, there is now a reasonably fail-self mechanism (provisional voting).”

This is not a civil-rights issue. Just as the booze-buyer law eliminates the possibility of subjective judgment, the voter-ID law actually protects voters from unfair treatment.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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