In the birthplace of modern democracy, voter participation is embarrassingly low. Americans exercise their most fundamental freedom less often than citizens of almost every other democracy. As trust in the government loiters at an all-time low, fringe populists are stretching the political spectrum to the verge of snapping. America’s unprecedented electoral circus will likely be decided by razor-thin margins. On the precipice of a fateful choice, a government supposedly of, by, and for the people needs its quiet center, the majority of eligible American voters that are not party affiliated and least likely to show up to the polls, to do just that. Policies designed to increase voter turnout, so that decisions over the direction America’s future are entrusted to all of its people, are overdue. Here are just a few unimaginative options:
- Election day could be moved to a weekend or declared a national holiday so that missing work, which would cost many their job, and citizenship are not in conflict.
- The window for early voting could be expanded nationwide.
- Voting could be offered through an online platform.
- Any government-citizen interaction that requires the exchange of official information, such as filing taxes, getting a driver license, getting a passport, receiving Medicare or Medicaid, enrolling in public education institutions, etc., could trigger automatic, opt-out voter registration.
- Voting could become compulsory, like it is in twenty-eight countries, including six OECD (rich, democratic) countries.
- Since voting is time-consuming, the government could pay people an immaterial sum, like five dollars, to vote.
All these proposals need to be explored carefully, but the possibility is clear: with relatively little effort, simple policies can make voting more accessible, more inclusive, and less burdensome. But just as the need for progress is greater than ever, voting rights are being dragged backward by fear of something less probable than being struck by lightning: in-person voter fraud.
In-person voter fraud is when someone goes to the polls and tries to impersonate someone else, vote if they are ineligible, or vote more than once. Since 2000 there have been only thirty-one credible allegations of in-person voter fraud, many of which have not been thoroughly investigated. To put that into perspective, that is thirty-one potential incidents of in-person voter fraud out of one billion ballots cast in that timeframe. Assuming all thirty-one of the accused are guilty, in-person voter fraud accounts for one fraudulent ballot for every 32,258,065 legitimate ballots cast.
Calling the response to in-person voter fraud disproportionate would be an understatement. Since 2014, more than forty bills have been introduced in state legislatures to establish voter-ID requirements or strengthen existing ones. In the last two years alone, more bills have been introduced to combat in-person voter fraud than there have been credible allegations of it since 2000. Indiana passed the first photo ID law in 2006, which requires voters to present a state issued photo ID before voting. Since then, sixteen other states have followed suit.
At first glance, a photo ID requirement does not seem like a major change to the electoral process— just show up to the polls with a driver license, right? But plenty of citizens do not drive, like an estimated 760,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania (9.2 percent of the state’s voter base), and subsequently lack proper identification. Drivers who have dealt with their local DMV can understand the excessive burden placed on citizens who want to vote. Imagine the bureaucratic entanglements would-be voters could find themselves in, especially if they don’t keep track of their documents. The DMV requires a birth certificate to get a photo ID. Some states require a photo ID to get a birth certificate. For someone without a copy of their birth certificate, the only other option is to track down a host of secondary identification documents, like social security cards, marriage certificates, and tax returns, until one of the agencies’ requirements are met. Traveling between DMVs, county clerk offices, and courthouses—coughing up fees at each stop—requires an inordinate commitment of time and money, up to the point where voters may wonder if it’s worth the effort, because how much do their votes matter anyway? And these people are already registered to vote in the first place, so they probably aren’t worried about their ability to vote. When they discover that they need a photo ID to vote, it could be too late. Even people who have all their documents in order are forced to find the time to wait in lines at the DMV before election day; people who don’t have their documents need to start the process weeks in advance. When photo ID laws make voting so prohibitively costly, voter registration, and by extension a citizen’s right to vote, start to mean less and less.
The math is nonsense: a state that enacts photo ID requirements is choosing to burden hundreds of thousands of registered voters to prevent a type of fraud that has likely occurred no more than once in its modern history.
Calling the response to in-person voter fraud unthoughtful would be generous. Electoral fraud does exist, just not the in-person kind targeted by photo ID laws. The infamously grimy Tammany Hall patronage machine dominated New York politics from the mid nineteenth century up to the presidency of F.D.R. In American history classes, Tammany Hall is cast as the cautionary tale of how electoral fraud (and corruption) undermines democracy. Tammany Hall’s electoral fraud operation followed a simple model. In exchange for favors and government posts, local ward-bosses gathered votes for higher-ups by bribing and intimidating voters, a practice that photo ID requirements do nothing to prevent.
More recently, in 1997, it was discovered that Miami’s mayor-elect, Xavier Suárez, won his election with the aid of systematic voter fraud. The scheme, which eventually resulted in fifty arrests, involved hundreds of absentee ballots in the name of ineligible voters, mostly dead people and felons. Photo ID requirements do not stop this type of fraud either.
State governments should be diligent against high-level electoral fraud. While the age of Tammany Hall has passed, incompetent bookkeeping that fails to remove ineligible voters from rolls leaves elections more vulnerable to fraud. But half-hearted efforts to clean up voter rolls can cause more damage than good. After the Miami mayoral scandal, the State of Florida contracted a private firm, DBT Online Inc., to sweep up the names of ineligible voters still lingering on rolls. DBT’s effort to clean up voter rolls ended up in the accidental disqualification of thousands of eligible voters. The snafu occurred during the Bush-Gore presidential election and may have even changed the course of American history. Those incorrectly disqualified were disproportionately black in a year when 90 percent of black Floridians voted for Gore. If state legislators were truly concerned about the types of fraud that actually threaten the integrity of elections, they would pursue the obvious remedies: empower electoral oversight agencies and fund the minimal investment in data analysis it takes to cross check voter rolls with issuances of death certificates and felony verdicts. So far they have not done that. Sadly, it’s because state legislators shoving through photo ID laws do not really care about safeguarding the sanctity of elections.
Calling the response to in-person voter fraud active subversion of democracy for political gain is polite. Photo ID laws decrease the turnout of registered voters who do not have state-issued IDs by making them jump through the bureaucratic hoops of obtaining one. It’s not hard to guess which demographics are less likely to have state-issued IDs: citizens who live in urban areas, are poorer, and are racial minorities. Photo ID laws were implemented in time for the 2012 election, and research about their effects is just coming out now. The conclusions are appalling. In states with strict photo ID laws, the gap between Latino and white turnout grew from 5.3 percent to 11.9 percent. Similarly, the gap between black and white turnout increased from 4.8 percent to 8.5 percent.
White suppression of the minority vote has a dark history in America. Jim Crow laws like poll taxes and absurd literacy tests made it almost impossible for black citizens to vote, even though their right to do so was guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. The oppression in some states was so egregious that in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 1965, Congress singled out specific states with a history of minority voter suppression. Section 5 mandated that all proposed changes to electoral law in the specified states had to be pre-approved by the federal government. The Voting Rights Act has been under attack since the day it was signed into law. In 2013 the Supreme Court’s conservative justices dealt the act a major blow, striking down Section 5 in the decision for Shelby County vs. Holder.
It’s no secret that the groups most affected by photo ID laws, the urban poor and minorities, vote heavily in favor of Democrats. Every photo ID bill has been introduced by a Republican, and they have only been passed in Republican-dominated statehouses. In states with strict photo ID laws, the turnout of strong conservatives decreased by 2.8 percent, while the turnout of strong liberals dropped by 10.7 percent. It’s important to notice how coldly calculated photo ID laws are. Republican legislators are willing to impede their most ardent supporters’ ability to vote as long as it damages Democratic turnout more. Whatever patriotic passion originally drove these legislators to their state capitals was summarily swapped for soulless political calculus.
Photo ID laws are like gerrymandering, which both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of doing, but much worse. They are worse because unlike gerrymandering, which contradicts the spirit of democracy, photo ID laws contradict its most basic premise. If we could travel back in time to when the legislators behind photo ID laws were in grade school and asked them to explain America’s democracy, they would all say the same thing. America means that everyone gets to vote. All grown up, they are intentionally sabotaging that premise. To disguise it, they have constructed a boogeyman–in-person voter fraud–more bogus than the one they never believed in as children. So really, the institution of photo ID laws being quietly constructed in Republican statehouses is a lot more like Tammany Hall, except more clever. Instead of forcing a group of voters to vote for the right candidate with dirty money and muscle, Republican legislators are stopping them from voting for the wrong candidate with the same type of mind-numbing bureaucracy that conservatives ought to be crusading against. It’s deceitful, it’s undemocratic, and it’s despicable. Frankly, they don’t deserve our civility. Their intention is to undermine the most basic idea of America.
Last month in Arizona’s presidential primaries, voters baked under the Southwest sun for hours. Some stood patiently in line only to be told to go home because the election had already been decided. In Phoenix, there was only one polling station for every 108,000 residents. Budget cuts created a $1.9 million shortfall in the funds needed to administer this year’s election. Consequently, the number of polling stations was drastically slashed. Had Section 5 still been around, the federal government would have likely prohibited Arizona from passing a recklessly insufficient electoral budget.
This surreal breakdown of political order serves as a reminder that the foundation of democracy cannot be taken for granted. At a time when America is beleaguered by unrelenting issues, in an election where so much is on the line because many perceive our institutions to be failing, we cannot afford for voting, our most basic institution, our mechanism to determine how we try and endure trying times, to fail. We must demand that our legislators protect the right to vote before we find our voices too quiet to demand anything at all.