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Voter ID Laws: Your Election-Year Guide to Disenfranchisement and Fraud

| July 23, 2012

Just don't vote Erich Segal. (Nineta)

Just don’t vote Erich Segal. (Nineta)

Voter IDs laws have become a political flashpoint in what’s gearing up to be another close election year. Supporters say the laws — which 30 states have now enacted in some form — are needed to combat voter fraud, while critics see them as a tactic to disenfranchise voters.

We’ve taken a step back to look at the facts behind the laws and break down the issues at the heart of the debate.

So what are these laws?

They are measures intended to ensure that a registered voter is who he says he is and not an impersonator trying to cast a ballot in someone else’s name. The laws, most of which have been passed in the last several years, require that registered voters show ID before they’re allowed to vote. Exactly what they need to show varies. Some states require a federal government-issued photo, while in others a current utility bill or bank statement is sufficient.

As a registered voter, I thought I always had to supply some form of ID during an election.

Not quite. Per federal law, first-time voters who registered by mail must present a photo ID or copy of a current bill or bank statement. Some states generally advise voters bring some form of photo ID. But prior to the 2006 election, no state ever required a voter to produce a government-issued photo ID as a condition to voting. Indiana in 2006 became the first state to enact a strict photo ID law, a law that was upheld two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Why are these voter ID laws so strongly opposed?

Voting law advocates contend these laws disproportionately affect elderly, minority and low-income groups that tend to vote Democratic. Obtaining photo ID can be costly and burdensome, with even free state ID requiring documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25 in some places. According to a study from NYU’s Brennan Center, 11 percent of voting-age citizens lack necessary photo ID while many people in rural areas have trouble accessing ID offices. During closing arguments in a recent case over Texas’s voter ID law, a lawyer for the state brushed aside these obstacles as the “reality to life of choosing to live in that part of Texas.”

Attorney General Eric Holder and others have compared the laws to a poll tax, in which Southern states during the Jim Crow era imposed voting fees, which discouraged the working class and poor, many of whom were minorities, from voting.

Given the sometimes costly steps required to obtain needed documents today, legal scholars argue that photo ID laws create a new “financial barrier to the ballot box.”

Just how well-founded are fears of voter fraud?

There have been only a small number of fraud cases resulting in a conviction. A New York Times analysis from 2007 identified 120 cases filed by the Justice Department over five years. These cases, many of which stemmed from mistakenly filled registration forms or misunderstanding over voter eligibility, resulted in 86 convictions.

There are “very few documented cases,” said UC-Irvine professor and election law specialist Rick Hasen. “When you do see election fraud, it invariably involves election officials taking steps to change election results or it involves absentee ballots which voter ID laws can’t prevent,” he said.

One of the most vocal supporters of strict voter ID laws, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, told the Houston Chronicle earlier this month that his office has prosecuted about 50 cases of voter fraud in recent years. “I know for a fact that voter fraud is real, that it must be stopped, and that voter id is one way to prevent cheating at the ballot box and ensure integrity in the electoral system,” he told the paper. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.

How many voters might be turned away or dissuaded by the laws, and could they really affect the election?

It’s not clear.

According to the Brennan Center, about 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID. This figure doesn’t represent all voters likely to vote, just those eligible to vote.

State figures also can be hard to nail down. In Pennsylvania, nearly 760,000 registered voters, or 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million voter base, don’t own state-issued ID cards, according to an analysis of state records by the Philadelphia Inquirer. State officials, on the other hand, place this number at between 80,000 and 90,000.

In Indiana and Georgia, states with the earliest versions of photo ID laws, about 1,300 provisional votes were discarded in the 2008 general election, later analysis has revealed.

As for the potential effect on the election, one analysis by Nate Silver at the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog estimates they could decrease voter turnout anywherebetween 0.8 and 2.4 percent. It doesn’t sound like a very wide margin, but it all depends on the electoral landscape.

“We don’t know exactly how much these news laws will affect turnout or skew turnout in favor of Republicans,” said Hasen, author of the recently released The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. “But there’s no question that in a very close election, they could be enough to make a difference in the outcome.”

When did voter ID laws get passed — and which states have the strictest ones?

The first such law was passed as early as 2003, but momentum has picked up in recent years. In 2011 alone, legislators in 34 states introduced bills requiring voters show photo ID — 14 of those states already had existing voter ID laws but lawmakers sought to toughen statutes, mainly to require proof of photo identification.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has a helpful breakdown of states’ voter ID laws and how they vary.

Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania have the toughest versions. These states won’t allow voters to cast a regular ballot without first showing valid photo ID. Other states with photo ID laws offer some more flexibility by providing voters with several alternatives.

What happens if a voter can’t show valid photo ID in these states?

These voters are entitled to a provisional ballot. To ensure their votes count, however, they must produce the mandatory ID within a certain time frame and affirm in person or writing they are the same individual who filled out a temporary ballot on Election Day. The time limits vary: They range anywhere from up to three days after the election (Georgia) to noon the Monday after the election (Indiana).

Are there any exceptions to the photo ID requirement?

Yes. Indigency or religious objections to being photographed. But these exceptions don’t automatically grant a voter the ability to cast a regular ballot: In Pennsylvania andIndiana, voters will be given a provisional ballot and must sign an affidavit for their exemption within the given time frame. For a more specific breakdown of all exceptions, see this state-by-state summary.

Why is the Justice Department getting involved in some cases?

Because of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that states with a history of discrimination receive preclearance before making changes to voting laws. Texas andSouth Carolina passed strict photo ID laws in 2011 but were refused preclearance by the DOJ, which argued that these laws could suppress turnout among minority voters.

Texas went to court recently to challenge the DOJ decision; a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is expected to issue a decision by the end of the summer. South Carolina heads to oral arguments in the same court in September.

Are there any other legal challenges to such laws currently in the works?

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to prevent the Pennsylvania voter ID law, signed into law by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in March, from taking effect. The lawsuit claims that elderly, disabled, low-income people and the homeless, plus married women who have changed their names, transgender individuals, and students who have photo IDs that don’t list an expiration date, will find it difficult to obtain proper ID before the November election.

Have any states attempted to enact strict voter ID laws but so far been unsuccessful?

Yes. In Wisconsin, two judges have blocked enforcement of the state’s photo ID law. An appeal in one case won’t be heard until after the November election. Meantime, Democratic governors in Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire and North Carolina havevetoed strict photo ID bills passed by their Republican-led legislatures last year.

Are there other voter ID laws in effect that ask for but don’t necessarily require photo ID?

Yes. In these so-called “non-strict photo ID states” — Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Idaho, South Dakota and Hawaii — individuals are requested to show photo ID but can still vote if they don’t have one. Instead, they may be asked to sign affidavits affirming their identity or provide a signature that will be compared with those in registration records.

Why has there been such a recent surge in voter ID legislation around the country?

This report by NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice cites primarily big Republican gains in the 2010 midterms which turned voter ID laws into a “major legislative priority.” Aside from Rhode Island, all voter ID legislation has been introduced by Republican-majority legislatures.

Republican figures have championed such laws. For instance, Mike Turzai, majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, recently praised the state’s legislative accomplishments at a Republican State Committee meeting last month. “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” he said.

A spokesman for Turzai, Steve Miskin, told ProPublica that Turzai was “mischaracterized” by the press. “For the first time in many years, you’re going to have a relatively level playing field in the presidential elections” as the result of these new laws,” Miskin said. “With all things equal, a Republican presidential nominee in Pennsylvania has a chance.”

–Suevon Lee, ProPublica

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18 Responses for “Voter ID Laws: Your Election-Year Guide to Disenfranchisement and Fraud”

  1. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    “Some states require a federal government-issued photo” What state requires a “federal government issued photo ID” to vote??? A quick search nets no such requirement in any state, that I could find, and frankly other than federal employees, and members of the military, most Americans would have no ability to even get a “federal government issued photo ID”, that I know of.

    I also have a very difficult time swallowing the numbers of people who don’t have photo ID’s cited in this article as well as other similar ones. Who in this day and age can function without some form of photo ID??? Can you even get utility accounts established without a photo id? How do you cash a check? Buy beer, or hell cough medicine for that matter??? And are we really expected to believe that these people who couldn’t be bothered to get a photo id at some point in their life, are really that politically involved to begin with? It frankly sounds very much made up.

    Is it really such a bad idea that someone should provide minimal proof of eligibility to vote, when they go to vote?

  2. Lord Help Us says:

    Everyone has an ID, or they should. Who do you know can get food stamps, section 8 housing, go to school, get a job, open a bank account to have social security checks automatically deposited, buy some medications, cigarettes, alcohol, spray paint, or ammo with out an ID? No One!!!! So why would anyone in their right mind think you shouldn’t be required to show ID to vote? Some things we must protect, voting is one of them. A debit card is acceptable in Florida, and it’s free. If someone really wants to vote, they will find a way to obtain what is required. When we start making exceptions, anything goes and the integrity of the process will be diminished.

  3. Lefty Loon says:

    Every illegal voter that is not purged from the rolls will disenfranchise every legal voter of an equal number. Good thing the law is clear.

  4. question says:

    Bare face truth was told:

    The ‘fix’ is in.

    The New York Times June 25, 2012, 11:58 pm

    Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai confessed:

    “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, DONE,” he said, according to a report on, a Web site that covers political news.

    • “Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s DONE.
    • First pro-life legislation – abortion facility regulations – in 22 years, DONE.
    • Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, DONE.”

    The statement drew a loud round of applause from the right wing conservative audience.

  5. Outsider says:

    As the above postere mentioned, you must prove via valid ID that you are an eligible citizen to obtain food stamps in Florida. Noone’s complaining, and apparently are producing the necessary ID to obtain those benefits, so why can’t the same enthusiasm be applied to obaining a photo ID for the purposes of voting?

  6. Dorothea says:

    I was at the local driver’s license office and while waiting I witnessed the following,

    A woman was trying to renew her Florida drivers license. She could not get her drivers license renewed because she had been married, divorced, and married again quite a few years ago. She was instructed to obtain the following documents before she could get her license renewed.

    1. Birth Certificate
    2. 1st marriage certificate
    3. Divorce degree
    4, 2nd marriage certificate

    How many women voters will be disenfranchised because they cannot get the necessary documents to get their drivers license or photo ID?

    • Magnolia says:

      ANY photo id will do, Dorothea, not just a driver’s license. Several states have adopted tougher rules in order to stop identity fraud.

      If these things are required to keep you safe from fraud, why would you object to showing ANY photo id to vote?

      Why can’t anyone obtain these documents? They are all a matter of public record.

    • Lord Help Us says:

      None. Use other acceptable form(s) of ID.

  7. question says:

    Dorothea … thanks for putting a real…and local face on what SUPPRESSION looks like.

    Some are so short-sighted in their views, living in quite small little worlds. Just where the GOP thrives.

  8. BW says:

    I think the debate against people having to show ID at the polls is just plain silly. In fact, one could say that those against it are advocates of election manipulation and fraud. Our right to vote is paramount over everything else as a democracy. We should always seek to protect that right and protect the validity of our elections. For if we can not trust that our vote counts and that our elections are valid, everything else crumbles. Freedom is something we so easily take for granted but only need to look around at the rest of the world and ask ourselves if we would want to live as they do elsewhere.

    Examples such as Dorothea’s are anomalies and not the norm. Should your friend have her records? Yes. And most do. The question then in these cases, are you an advocate that says anyone should be able to just show up and get a license or ID with minimal/no proof they are who they are? What are the possible repercussions to that?

    It really is simple . . . if your a citizen then you have the right to vote in our elections. When you show up, show proof you are who you are and eligible to vote. Why is that so tough?

  9. question says:

    The Huffington Post | By Nick Wing Posted: 07/24/2012

    Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Trial Set To Begin As
    State CONCEDES IT HAS NO PROOF Of In-Person Voter Fraud

    Defendants in a case against one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws in Pennsylvania made a major concession to plaintiffs this week, just days ahead of the start of the trial over the measure.

    In a stipulation agreement signed earlier this month, state officials conceded that they had no evidence of prior in-person voter fraud, or even any reason to believe that such crimes would occur with more frequency if a voter ID law wasn’t in effect.

    We already know PA Republicans have sleaze going for them: Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai confessed. They are MASTERS at fraud/lies…and I’m afraid they know that’s their ONLY hope to steal this PA election…& they’ll just have to do a little more smoke & mirrors to finalize their voter suppression plan. Here’s hoping they FAIL big time.

  10. Outsider says:

    My wife had to go through the same process Dorothea described to renew her license, except that she had never been divorced. So, we went next door to get a copy of the marriage license, and she had a copy of her birth certificate. So what? Yes, it’s an inconvenience, but being that thousands of people gave their lives so we actually could vote I think it’s a small price to pay to exercise our freedoms. Election Day comes every year at roughly the same time; if you’re not prepared, it’s your own fault.

  11. Dorothea says:

    Yes, Outsider, thousands of people gave their lives so we could vote. Now we have placed impediments making it more and more difficult for people to vote. Since there have been a miniscule number of voter fraud cases in the United States, I would hope that their sacrifice has not been in vain. This is not about fraud, it about voter suppression.

    I’m happy for your wife that she need only to go “next door” for her marriage license. However, many people are not so lucky and many are not even aware that you need these documents to get a RENEWAL of a license that they have had for decades. It can cost upwards of $500 to get all the needed documentation. Many people in Florida don’t live “next door” to their documents. Just getting a birth certificate in time to renew through a rush order from a document service can cost just under $100.

  12. Dorothea says:


    I couldn’t keep from laughing at your comment that birth certificates are public records. If that were the case we would have more fraud, not less.

    I’m one of the fortunate few who has a passport that is legal ID. But check out how much a passport costs. Other than that I looked through my wallet for another form of picture ID and all I could find was my drivers license. Could you please name some other picture IDs that people might have that would qualify other than a drivers license or a Florida ID that can be purchased in lieu of a drivers license, with the same stringent documentation required.

    • Anonymous says:

      I have actually copy and pasted here the section of the voting law from the Florida State of Elections handbook. Please refer to the last sentence, it clearly says no one is disenfranchised. Try another complaint from the daily Democrat talking points email.

      “Voting at the Polls

      On Election Day, the polls are open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. and are normally less busy during the mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

      If you do not know the location of your polling place, contact your Supervisor of Elections. Also, Supervisors of Elections have precinct and polling place finders on their web sites to provide you with the information on where to vote.

      At the polls, you will be asked to provide a valid picture identification with signature. The following photo ids will be accepted:

      Florida driver’s license
      Florida identification card issued by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles
      United States passport
      Debit or credit card
      Military identification
      Student identification
      Retirement center identification
      Neighborhood association identification
      Public assistance identification.

      If your photo identification does not contain your signature, you will be asked to provide an additional identification that includes a signature.

      If you do not have the proper identification, you will be provided with a provisional ballot. Your provisional ballot will count if the signature on the provisional ballot envelope matches the signature on your voter registration application.”

  13. Dorothea says:

    Finding a solution for a problem that does not exist:

    The (Florida) GOP was asked by a few in the media why they are so hell-bent on disenfranching voters. They claim it is all an effort to “stamp out fraud”.

    Interesting, since even our Sec of State had to admit he could find no cases of voter fraud. The former GOP chairman told the media to talk with the election supervisors about all the fraud… except none of them, NOT EVEN THE GOP ONES, claim there has been any.,_including_a_return_to_jim_crow/

  14. tulip says:

    @ Dorothea If a person calls city or town hall where they were married, they will send a copy of marriage license for around $10, same with divorce decree. I feel sorry for women who have been married and divorced multiple times.

    When I first heard about this a couple of years ago the question came to mind of what about seniors in their 60’s and 70’s who have had multiple marriages and have to get records from way back, which do happen to be on computer files now. However, how would they remember date and place if there were multiple marriages. I think there is a cutoff point at age 70 where that info is not required. NOt sure. I think the whole thing is dumb—–if a person has lived in this country, has a SS card, works and pays taxes and social security, had a drivers license and credit cards, and birth certificate, why they need marriage records and other forms of ID is beyond me. I guess women are better off if they never marry, just live with the guy and save a lot of hassle at the DVM. (lol)

  15. Dorothea says:


    Divorce wasn’t so easy a few decades ago before no-fault. Try calling Juarez, Mexico for a copy of your divorce papers. Juarez was the “place to go” if your state, which was most, if not all, of them. placed stringent restrictions on a cause for divorce. Mostly it was proven adultery (which gave many private investigators and their “adultery” surrogates a good living). In New York it was adultery; New Jersey was adultery or cruel and unusual treatment. The employees at the DVM must be having a good laugh at some of the DV decrees. I hope that you are right about the age ceiling of 70. My advice to all women, keep your birth surname no matter how many times you are married. (lol)

    BTW, I’m being told that if you renew online you can avoid all that “sh##” and that if you go in person you need certified copies of everything. Don’t know if that’s true or not.

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