Carded at the Polls

Carded at the Polls

Why a pending Supreme Court case could disenfranchise students just as they’ve begun voting in record numbers.


Michael Lausch

February 20, 2008

We may be on the brink of the country’s largest voter disenfranchisement initiative in modern American history. The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Crawford v. Marion County Board of Elections, a case which could determine thousands of votes come November 2008. While some are attacking the law as a xenophobic attempt to push illegal immigrants out of the U.S. political process–which it is–the statute could also end up hampering the ability of American college students to vote.

In a year when youth voting is reshaping the political landscape, you might expect state and federal governments to be promoting laws that make it easier, not harder, for young Americans to head to the polls. Lawmakers in Indiana aren’t. The law now being challenged in the Supreme Court, which was passed in 2005 by Indiana’s legislature, requires residents to present valid photo identification to vote. While the statute is aimed at keeping illegal immigrants away from the polls, it also carries with it some unexpected implications for college-age voters. Students who do not claim permanent residency in Indiana cannot vote in the state’s elections, even though most full-time college students spend at least nine months out of the year on campus. If out-of-state students who attend school at any of Indiana’s colleges or universities want to vote, they currently have two options: vote absentee in their home state, or change their permanent residency.

There are problems with both options. For college students, voting absentee isn’t always easy because, to be counted, most absentee ballots need to arrive no less than eight days before Election Day. At some universities, campus mail systems are notoriously slow or unreliable, and while planning ahead sounds good in theory, sometimes it’s difficult for college students to do. Before the voter ID law hit the books, students could vote in Indiana if they could produce a utility bill as proof of residency, but many students don’t pay utility bills directly since they live on campus and these fees are included the university’s room and board costs. A paycheck is also acceptable sometimes, but not all students work. But the issue isn’t just a question of convenience; it’s about the government’s role in promoting its elections. Should the government be making it easier or harder for its citizens to vote? Should states be erecting cumbersome barriers for a certain group of Americans to cast ballots? Out-of-state students also have the option of switching their permanent residency, of course, but that can come at a high cost: These students risk losing scholarships from their home states, and, since health insurance is often tied to one’s residency, rising healthcare costs.

Furthermore, why shouldn’t a valid student ID be sufficient to vote where one attends school? Matthew Segal and his student election rights group Student Association for Voter Empowerment, or SAVE, are in favor of such a statute. “Academic institutions allocate ID cards anyway, [and] there are few reasons why this form of ID is any less [valid] than, say, a utility bill or a bank statement,” Segal said.

Minnesota is one of the states leading the front on this initiative. In addition to being able to present a post-secondary school ID to vote, voters in Minnesota have the option of registering on the day of the election. Same-day registration often increases turnout, especially among young voters. Cumbersome advance registration itself is a uniquely American element to voting; in other nations, it is common for a person to show up to the polls on the day of an election with no advance notice to cast a vote. It is also worth noting that many countries hold elections on weekends, or else make Election Day a national holiday, giving working folks the time to get to a polling place and cast their votes.

Supporters of the Indiana law argue that the barriers the statue creates are minor inconveniences when compared to the risks of voter fraud. Reducing illegal voting is an important enough end to justify these controversial means, they say. During the oral arguments for Crawford v. Marion County Board of Elections this January, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has become the tie-breaking vote in many recent cases, seemed to suggest that he is among these critics. “[Do] you want us to invalidate a statute on the ground that it’s a minor inconvenience to a small percentage of voters?” he asked lawyers representing the opponents of the law. Kennedy’s skepticism could make the difference in what many legal experts believe will be a 5-4 decision. David Ryden, an election-law expert and professor of political science at Hope College agrees: “Justice Kennedy–the key swing vote in this case–appears poised to lead a narrow Supreme Court majority in upholding the law.”

But such a law would only be justified if voter fraud were actually prevalent in America. In a Washington Post article called “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” Michael Waldman and Justin Levitt write that “before and after every close election, politicians and pundits proclaim: the dead are voting, foreigners are voting, people are voting twice. On closer examination, though, most such allegations don’t pan out.” In the state of Washington, for example, a 2005 election investigation found that among two million voters only one individual cast two ballots–hardly enough to swing an election. Punishment for voter fraud is already severe; the potential repercussions like fines or jail time generally deter the vast majority of potential fraudulent voters. As Waldman and Levitt write, “proven voter fraud, statistically, happens about as often as death by lightning strike.”

The bottom line is that a voter ID requirement could create an undue burden on a citizen’s right to vote. Voter ID laws are the first step to slipping backwards into voter disenfranchisement, and are eerily reminiscent of past disenfranchisement attempts like literacy tests and poll taxes. The state of Indiana, for example, charges a $21 fee for a driver’s license. If the figure sounds small, think of college students across the nation who work two or three jobs just to pay rent and don’t have the extra money to put into getting a new ID, much less the time or transportation to get down to the DMV. If the court sides with such dangerous legislation, similar laws could follow in states nationwide. In the end, this law, masquerading as a savior against voter fraud, does nothing more than set up a 21st century poll tax, and young voters will pay the price.

Michael Lausch is a senior at Hope College. He is an intern for the Center for American Progress’ External Affairs department.

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