Most Americans, when asked for a photo ID, will pull out a driver's license and not think twice about it. We have to show proof of our identity when we drink, when we drive, and when we fly. Identification can also be required to rent a movie, borrow a book, or write a check. So why shouldn't we be required to show a photo ID to vote? That's the question presently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
More than 20 states, including Indiana, currently have voter-ID laws in place requiring that citizens show some form of valid, government-issued ID such as a driver's license or passport in order to vote. However, with a presidential election on the horizon, these laws have become the center of heated debate.
The debate is largely divided along partisan lines. (Republicans tend to favor ID laws, while Democrats generally oppose them.) It pits protecting the integrity of the voting process from voter fraud against making sure as many eligible voters as possible take part in the process. Yet critics argue that these laws do little to protect against fraud and actually prevent legitimate voters from exercising their right to vote.
According to a 2007 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, photo-ID laws are effective only in preventing individuals from impersonating other voters at the polls - an occurrence "more rare than death by lightning." Furthermore, as the Brennan Center's report The Truth About Voter Fraud (http://www.truthaboutfraud.org/pdf/TruthAboutVoterFraud.pdf) points out, there is a great deal of misunderstanding related to what constitutes actual voter fraud.
Too often, other forms of election misconduct or irregularities are improperly labeled as voter fraud when, in fact, they are due to technological glitches, mistakes by election officials or voters, misconduct by individuals other than individual voters, and a host of other problems that voter-ID laws fail to address. Moreover, what little voter fraud does occur generally takes place through absentee ballots, rather than in-person voters.
While voter-ID laws seem to have little effect on preventing election misconduct, they do pose a threat of disenfranchisement to millions of Americans lacking valid IDs. As Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Legal Network, points out, "Millions of eligible, registered voters lack identification - they do not drive, fly, or routinely enter office towers, although they do vote and have done so most of their adult lives. Many of them - poor, elderly, disabled, and student voters - lack the stringent government-issued photo identification required by Indiana and four other states."
According to Brandon, 18 percent of voters over 65 and more than 3 million disabled people lack government IDs. "African Americans obtain driver's licenses at half the rate of whites. Many rural elderly were born at home and have no birth certificates. The costs of getting a government ID can be prohibitive: up to $45 for a driver's license, $97 for a passport, and more than $200 for documents proving citizenship."
What's more, writes Mark Sherman of the Associated Press, "Homeless people wanting to vote might face the most difficulty under the law. While the state will provide a voter ID card free of charge to the poor, applicants still must have a birth certificate or other documentation to get the ID card." Carter Wolf, executive director of Horizon House, which provides services to the homeless, adds that it can cost up to $70 just to get a birth certificate.
Any law that denies American citizens unfettered access to the voting booth should be viewed with great skepticism. Unlike driving, flying, or even writing a check, voting is a fundamental constitutional right, one that should have few barriers in its way. And while on their face voter-ID laws may seem relatively benign, they are a menace to freedom and bring to mind the poll taxes and literacy tests that were used to keep African Americans away from the voting booths prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Voter-ID laws also take us one step closer to a "show your papers" society. In this regard, they are part of a far-reaching agenda to ensure the adoption of a de facto national identification card, which has repeatedly met with opposition - and for good reasons.
The idea of requiring citizens to carry a national ID card is not new. Many current authoritarian regimes, like those of the past, use an ID system to control the people. Furthermore, the technology used in creating such a card, considered the ultimate human tracking device, poses a grave threat to our privacy rights, enabling government agents to access our most personal information and track our moment-by-moment movements - even in our homes. Such a card would necessarily include biometric information such as fingerprint or retina print or DNA data, along with personal information such as race, age, and residential status.
For such a card to be effective, police authority will necessarily be expanded so that law-enforcement agents can demand the card in a wide range of circumstances. Also, a greater sharing of information among all government agencies will be established through a national database.
In addition to pushing the constitutional limits of privacy, a government-maintained, national information database immediately gives rise to worries about the misuse of information and abuse by those with access to databases - which includes private corporations as well as identity thieves.
Voter fraud is clearly the least of our concerns right now, and voter-ID laws appear to be nothing more than a back-door attempt to institute a national ID card. Let us hope that we don't wake up one morning to find ourselves living in a police state.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at (firstname.lastname@example.org). Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at (http://www.rutherford.org).