Astonishing. Remarkable. Sinister. Those are words that come up again and again when confronting the wave of voter identification laws that has swept through more than 30 Republican-dominated state legislatures in recent years. The measures sound innocuous enough: when a voter shows up to the polls on Election Day, he or she must present valid photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
The goal, proponents say, is to combat in-person voter fraud—claiming to be someone you're not and entering a vote in that person's name. But study after study, including an exhaustive investigation by the Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has found almost no evidence that in-person voter fraud occurs. Culling through 5,000 documents over 10 weeks, the News21 project found only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud since 2000: about one case for every 15 million eligible voters.
What's more, requiring state or federally issued ID at the polls has been repeatedly shown by independent analyses to impose a disproportionate burden on very specific demographics: the poor, the elderly, students and people of color.
"We've heard it time and time again—it really is a solution in search of a problem," says Stephen Spaulding, Washington D.C.–based staff counsel for the nonprofit citizens' lobby group Common Cause.
"We do have election administration problems in the country—with machines breaking down, assuring that votes are counted accurately—and we need to focus our attention there," he says. "This threatens everyone's right to a free and fair election."
Barred at the Box
A symbol of what's wrong with voter ID laws is Viviette Applewhite. At 93 years old, Applewhite is an African-American Pennsylvanian who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and has cast her ballot in almost every election since the 1960s.
Her purse was stolen years ago, and with it her Social Security card. What's more, since she was adopted as a child, the name on her birth certificate differs from that used on other official documents. Her adoption itself lacks any kind of record.
Under Pennsylvania's voter ID law, which was passed in March 2012 and has since become a legal lighting rod in the battle over voting rights, Applewhite could not obtain the required identification to participate at the polls.
Her case, and the case of others similarly affected by the law, was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the D.C.–based law firm Arnold & Porter. The lawsuit was granted a preliminary injunction, and as the case was being appealed in August, Applewhite received an ID using her 20-year-old Medicare card, proof of address and a state document affirming her name and Social Security number. (According to media reports, the process also required her to take two buses to the licensing office.)
That's a lot of hassle to exercise a right Applewhite has enjoyed for 60 years, but she's not alone. According to best estimates, strict voter ID laws could effectively disenfranchise millions of voters if adopted nationwide.