Voter fraud is an “epidemic.” It supposedly abounds, stealing elections from rightful candidates and places losers into unearned elected office. Republican dominated statehouses across the country are “combating” this problem through strict voter ID legislation, where a government-issued photo identification is required in order to vote. Seven states have already enacted legislation requiring state-issued photo ID at the polls and many more are pending.
One of the states, Wisconsin, enacted what Milwaukee Common Council Alderwoman Milele Coggs accurately called “the most restrictive voter ID legislation in the country.” It requires photo IDs issued by the state or federal government and only allows a forgetful voter’s provisional ballot to count if they return within three days with a proper ID.
College students are some of the unintended—or intended—citizens affected by the law. They broke for Barack Obama in 2008 by an astonishing 38 points and remained loyal to Democrats in 2010 by wide margins.
The Wisconsin law does allow limited student IDs to be used as valid identification at the polls — but only those student IDs with signatures and expiration dates within two years on them. But IDs issued by the University of Wisconsin System to its 182,000 students do not have signatures. And no university has such an ID with expiration dates within two years, Heather Smith, the president of the young voter advocacy group Rock the Vote explained to The Nation.
Students would also have to jump through hoops to prove that they are current students, especially difficult for those living off-campus and those who must move every year among campus dormitories. The obstacles “start to feel intentional after awhile,” Smith said.
Even having valid IDs from another state may not be enough. For the more than 40,000 out-of-state students in the University of Wisconsin system, the law “require[s] us to go to the DMV, surrender our out-of-state licenses and obtain a Wisconsin license at $28 a pop,” wrote one Wisconsin undergraduate on the Rock the Vote Blog. A state-issued voter ID card is technically free but it may take money and time to produce the proper documentation such as a birth certificate.
Access to the DMV is limited in states like Wisconsin, Smith said. Three of Wisconsin’s 72 counties—Buffalo, Menominee and Verno —don’t even have a DMV office and other single offices serve counties with hundreds of thousands of people.
The practice of requiring government-issued photo ID was controversial until 2008, when the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. The law requires a photo ID with an expiration date and must be issued by the federal or state government. For out-of-state students in Indiana, having a home state drivers license, Social Security card and voter registration card wasn’t enough to be able to vote.
One dissenter to the Court’s decision, Justice Stephen Breyer, observed that attaining a driver’s license or passport costs much more than a poll tax did, a Jim Crow practice found unconstitutional in 1966. Justice David Souter rightly concluded that “the law imposes an unreasonable and irrelevant burden on voters who are poor and old.”
Yet that burden continues to spread nationwide in Republican-held statehouses.
Millions of Americans don’t even have the proper ID for these new laws, according to one study. “As many as 11 percent of United States citizens—more than 21 million individuals—do not have government-issued photo identification,” the study found, including nearly one-fifth of Americans over the age of 65 and one quarter of African-American voting-age citizens.
The shrill cries about voter fraud are regular tactics used by Republicans to limit the voting rights of unfriendly groups. As The Nation’s John Nichols has reported, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s corporate-friendly agenda has funneled money—and people—into voter suppression efforts. Wisconsin State Rep. Robin Vos, for example, chairs the state’s ALEC and co-sponsored the legislation that ushered in the law.
Allegations about voter fraud remain a great pretext to enact what one Pennsylvania lawmaker calls “a solution in search of a problem.” Indeed, another study by the Brennan Center for Justice describes voter fraud claims to be “greatly exaggerated” and notes that the push for photo ID requirements “address[es] a sort of voter fraud more rare than death by lightning.” In the 2004 presidential election, for example, there were seven cases of voter fraud —or 0.0002 percent of the nearly 3 million ballots cast in Wisconsin that year. All seven were persons with felony convictions. “None of these problems could have been resolved by requiring photo ID at the polls,” the article concludes. And Department of Justice investigations were reported to have found “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.”
Public officials see through these GOP plans to suppress the vote. Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, along with several other members of Congress and Reverend Jesse Jackson, held a press conference in July. “If, in fact, we are going to have a society that involves all of its citizens, we cannot allow for these kinds of bills to be passed by legislature after legislature after legislature,” she said.
At a Campus Progress conference in July, former president Bill Clinton said “there has never been in my lifetime, since we got rid of the poll tax and all the Jim Crow burdens on voting, the determined effort to limit the franchise that we see today.” Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in June characterized Republicans as those “who want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally—and very transparently—block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates.” (Emphasis hers.)
Senator Michael Bennet submitted a letter to the Department of Justice asking for an investigation into these laws. “As far as America’s civil rights trajectory is concerned, that sort of effect takes America in the wrong direction,” he wrote. The letter was cosigned by 15 of Bennet’s Senate colleagues, all Democrats.
Despite efforts to curb the vote, some activists remain positive. “Don’t let them stop you. They’re trying to keep you from voting and let’s show up at the polls and show them we can participate,” Smith told The Nation.
“This is a democracy and we take our right to vote seriously. We won’t be stopped.”