Right now, there are only five states that have strict photo voter ID laws. Six more states have flexible photo ID laws that allow for a broader range of acceptable identification than the strict states. And then there are nineteen states that require some non-photo form of ID to vote. But if you live in Illinois, where there is no voter ID law at all, you might be alarmed to find out on Election Day that you still may have to produce ID to vote. Reason being, it is one of twenty-four states where your voting rights can be challenged by a poll watcher—any random person, really, who happens to be at your polling place—even if the watcher doesn’t have any evidence that you actually need to be challenged. And if you are challenged in Illinois, you have to produce two forms of ID to prove that you’re eligible to vote.
Last month, we published a story on a Tea Party group called True the Vote, which trades in voter ID law advocacy, voter registration challenges and poll watcher trainings. Challenging people who may have illegally registered to vote, and training people to observe poll activity are innocuous activities, but only when divorced from their racial history in the United States. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, “Voter Challengers” details that troublesome history while spelling out just how problematic such poll-watching activities can be, especially when administered by hyper-partisan and racially insensitive groups like True the Vote.
“This history of discriminatory voter challenges casts doubt on the fraud-prevention arguments traditionally used to justify these laws,” writes Nicolas Riley, author of the report. True the Vote, and their many allies, often cite voter fraud as the reason for militarizing the polls, but countless studies have shown that the notion of massive voter fraud is mostly bunk, as meticulously noted in this News 21 investigation.
Still, thirty-nine states allow private citizens to challenge voters at the polls. According to the Brennan study, election officials in those states are “under immense time pressure to decide challenges quickly in order to avoid voting delays.” True the Vote is aware of this, but they put it differently, saying at a recent poll watcher training that election officials are “under immense pressure to do the wrong thing”—namely let undocumented immigrants vote, and let people vote multiple times.
Scarier, of the thirty-nine states that allow random people to challenge voters inside polling places, only fifteen of them require the challengers to prove that the person they’re challenging isn’t an eligible voter. Which means that in twenty-four states people can wage all kinds of frivolous accusations—that a person is an “illegal alien,” or that they are using a dead person’s identity to vote—to burden if not intimidate voters. In these states, the poll challenger statutes can be abused and used for racial profiling, when not sending a chill effect to others who might be vulnerable for no other reason than having a Latino surname.
In those states, people can make up a reason to challenge a voter’s rights without any evidence backing them up, and do so with impunity. It’s the same as when people drum up charges of voter fraud to pass voter ID bills and go unpunished when it’s revealed that no such fraud exists. You can’t fabricate a police report by saying you were mugged if you weren’t; you can’t file a false claim saying you lost possessions in a disaster. In both cases, you face jail and fines for bearing false witness, but not if you fabricate voter fraud or voter ineligibility in many states.