Voter ID laws appear less likely to pose obstacles for youth vote in November
With less than a month left until Election Day, voting rights advocates say that voter ID laws are less likely to be an issue for students than they may have initially appeared due to delayed implementation by state and federal courts.
Thirty states have enacted legislation ranging in scope that requires voters to show valid identification at the polls. Many include battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire and Virginia. But of those states, only four – Tennessee, Indiana, Kansas and Georgia – will have strict photo ID laws in effect for the 2012 election.
“Overall, students don’t have a lot to worry about in this election from overly restrictive ID laws in part because of the relatively few states that have them in place,” said Justin Levitt, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “It’s far less of an issue than it looked like last year.”
Debate over voter fraud has gained prominence since the contested 2000 presidential election. And Republican congressional and state house gains in 2010 led to a wave of new voter ID laws passed across the country. All of the recent efforts, with the exception of Rhode Island, were spearheaded by GOP-majority state legislatures.
Under the Voting Rights Act, modifications to election laws in 16 states with histories of voter discrimination are required to receive approval from the DOJ or the federal court of the District of Columbia.
But the Department of Justice (DOJ) has denied pre-clearance to voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina due to concerns that they would disproportionately affect minority voters. South Carolina sued the DOJ and took their case to the D.C. federal district court. A three-judge panel unanimously upheld the law on Oct. 10 but ruled that it should not take effect until next year due to the short time span until Election Day.
Meanwhile, state courts have blocked or weakened implementation of the laws requiring photo identification in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – both of which are on the campaigns’ electoral radar.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Clo Ewing said that they will monitor the issue as Election Day approaches.
“[L]ooking forward, we’re focused on making sure that every voter has the information they need to make their voices heard and is empowered to exercise their right to vote,” Ewing said. “We want people to know that voting is easy when you have all the facts.”
Opponents of the new voter ID laws argue they disproportionately prevent minorities, young people, the elderly and the poor – many of whom tend to vote Democratic – from voting.
Some studies have indicated that there are few proven cases of voter fraud. A 2007 New York Times study found that 86 convictions resulted from 120 Justice Department cases over a five-year period. Similarly, an analysis conducted by News21, a student journalism initiative based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University found only 10 convictions out of 2,068 alleged voter fraud cases since 2000. News21 noted that fraud by absentee ballot – which voter ID laws would not address – occurred more frequently than instances of voter impersonation.
Supporters of voter ID laws say that requiring people to verify their identity at the polls helps protect the integrity of each vote.
“It’s pretty clear that voter fraud exists. The point isn’t whether it happens or not, but that we take steps to prevent it before it happens,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s just a fundamental step to protect the security of elections, no different from when you put security on a computer network so that you prevent intrusion into it. Whether or not the threat is high or low, you want to prevent it anyway.”
But critics of the voter ID laws argue that some of the provisions appear aimed at certain demographics and could cause confusion when trying to vote.
Tennessee’s new voter ID law, for example, explicitly bans student ID as an acceptable form of identification at the polls. Faculty and staff, however, can use university-issued IDs to vote. Student identification would also not have been accepted at the Texas polls if the state’s photo ID law were in effect.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s law would have permitted student ID – but with the caveat that it had to be “valid” with an expiration date. The problem: Not all current university-issued identification cards have dates on them. Students tried to address this issue by placing expiration stickers on their ID cards, as well as ensuring that newly printed IDs included dates.
But a Pennsylvania judge on Oct. 2 blocked the photo identification requirement from taking effect for this election, ruling that the law would exclude otherwise eligible people from voting.
The questions surrounding voter ID laws come as college campuses across the country have ramped up student voter registration efforts. At the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., alone, over 1,000 students have registered to vote in the precinct closest to campus since the start of the fall semester.
Students often cite the fact that they spend most of their time in their college towns or the inconvenience of casting an absentee ballot elsewhere as reasons for registering to vote on campus. Additionally, some students opt to cast their vote in a battleground state rather than their home state which may not be in play.
Virginia voters were not required to present photo identification at the polls until this election, although they still had to show proof of their identities with documents like a voter registration card or a driver’s license. The state’s new law widened the acceptable types of identification to vote that now includes paychecks, utility bills and current student ID issued from a Virginia university.
College of William and Mary Student Assembly Director of Voter Registration Zach Woodward said the addition of student ID as a usable form of identification at the Virginia polls would help empower students.
“I think that every student that wants to vote on Election Day will be able to vote,” Woodward said.
Other student organizers agreed that Virginia’s voter ID law did not appear to pose a problem for students.
“I would say that we are not very concerned about the change in voter ID laws,” William and Mary College Republicans Chair Tyler Johnson said, noting that voters can cast a provisional ballot or present valid identification within 10 days in the event they encounter problems on Election Day.
The consequences of voter ID laws will likely vary by state and the time frame in which they are enacted.
“We’ve had a variety of voter identification laws enacted in recent years, some of which are more problematic than others,” said Ohio State University law professor Daniel Tokaji.
But the current state of voter ID laws may change by the next presidential election or the 2014 midterms. Wisconsin’s law, for example, has been put on hold for further judicial review. Moreover, none of the courts have ruled any of the laws as unconstitutional – leaving the door open for different voter ID measures.
Experts note that the debate over voter ID laws may be particularly heated this year in part because of the high possibility that the presidential election will be decided by a close margin.
“In a very tense, very close election in a highly partisan context, the real function may be to appeal to both sides to get people interested in the race and motivate them to vote,” said John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the libertarian Cato Institute. “I think there’s a strong element on both sides that really gets people’s blood going.”
Specific policies about voter identification and registration in each state compiled by the nonpartisan National Association of Secretaries of State can also be viewed at CanIVote.org.