The Constitutional Right To Vote Blog:The Debate over Voter Identification at the Polls: Expanding our Vision

by , Rob Richie, Right to Vote Blog // Published February 14, 2011

The right to vote is at the heart of representative democracy. Upholding that right requires that every eligible voter should have easy access to voting, every vote should be tallied accurately and no ineligible vote should be cast. Both limiting access to voting and allowing fraudulent votes undercut determination of the "consent of the governed."

Unfortunately, those two goals clash in many policymakers' minds. Policy debates too often take on ugly partisan overtones that make the right to vote just another pawn in the parties' chess game for dominance. To move forward, we must accept the need for improvements to achieve both goals - and realize that we can do so with proper investment, planning and oversight.

No policy exemplifies the current divide over voting rights more starkly than proposals to require voters to show a government-issued photo identification at the polls. Backed by proponents as a necessary tool to curtail what they see as rampant fraud, voter identification requirements are being pushed in states across the country this year.

Requiring voter ID can seem eminently reasonable to the many Americans who regularly show their ID's at places like the bank and airport. But millions of American citizens lack photo identification, particularly among those who are elderly, young and low-income. It's already a federal crime to pretend to be someone else when voting, and rigorous review of recent elections does not support claims of organized fraud involving impersonation at the polls. Those realities lead many voting rights advocates to challenge voter ID requirements -and many Democrats to see them primarily as Republican efforts to reduce the number of Democratic voters.

Voting rights advocates have the better factual argument, but that's not to say that most voter ID advocates are motivated only by partisanship. Any act of cheating violates the integrity of the process, and most voters can imagine someone getting away with cheating and probably have heard stories of past elections where dead people voted in Chicago and tens of thousands of votes were manufactured in Texas.

The debate over voter fraud isn't new and won't go away no matter which side "wins" in this year's policy battles. In the short-term, FairVote urges legislators to look at real evidence and tailor any changes to that evidence. But we also urge all sides to see it as an opportunity to ask whether we are truly living up to the ideal of what it would mean to have an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution. To uphold the right to vote, we clearly would take steps to reassure those who fear fraud while ensuring no eligible voters is blocked from voting.

Neither major party need fear democracy

This is where the lurking issue of partisanship emerges - can we trust our legislators to put principle over party? We of course shouldn't have to factor in partisanship when asking elected officials to uphold principles of democracy, just as the First Amendment shouldn't be defended based on which party does a better job at exercising our freedoms of speech, press and assembly, but principled commitment to democratic principles is not expected of our leaders. When the "fox guards the henhouse", jaded political analysts will say, what do you expect?

We just expect and demand more, of course. But right now we are at a political moment of fierce competition between the parties where neither major party should fear a more democratic process. Both parties can earn votes from low-income voters, young and elderly voters. Both parties can win high turnout elections, as reflected by presidential wins by George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. There is no reason for Republicans to fear high turnout elections when their nominees have earned five of the six highest percentages in the national popular vote in presidential elections since World War 2.

Same day voter registration provides a recent example. While it is often seen as a boon to Democrats, both parties can benefit from the greater access it provides when populist frustration with the status quo breaks their way, as demonstrated both by Democratic success in 2006 and Republican success in 2010. Going into 2010, Democrats' recent success had led them to control 15 of 18 state legislative chambers in the nine states with same day voter registration. But after 2010, Republicans have a 15-3 edge. They picked up 12 legislative chambers in these nine states with same-day voter registration, and only eight chambers in the remaining 41 states.

If we can set aside partisan calculations, coming to an agreement on protecting the right to vote would require a shared commitment to both core principles: access to voting should not be restricted for any eligible voter, but fraudulent votes should be prevented. Addressing these goals in tandem would take a serious financial investment, but many budget-conscious legislators in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin already seem ready to invest millions in their voter identification proposals. If millions of dollars are on the table to secure voting, why not do it right?

A specific proposal for moving forward

Here's an example of a policy proposal designed to put battles over access, identification and registration to rest once and for all. In the United States every newborn child already receives a social security number. Suppose every new citizen of whatever age also were given a unique "voter registration number": a number later coming with a "voter registration card" for adults with a photo ID paid for by the government. Strictly restricted to use for voting, that voter registration number would mean every eligible voter would have a unique identifier. Voters would show their registration card at the polls- and if having misplaced it near Election Day, be able to use their signature as verification just as we rely on signatures for absentee voters today even in states with voter ID requirements.

We'd need to review these particulars to make sure it would work. We would need appropriate safeguards against the government using information from voter registration cards for purposes other than civic matters, for example. We would need to develop database processes to help keep current with voters' changing residences. We would need to determine the balance among federal, state and local government responsibility for administering the program.

Perhaps a whole different approach would be more successful in getting us to a solution. But a solution is where we need to go. Enacting voter ID requirements without ensuring they don't unfairly limit access is wrong. Pretending that concerns about voter fraud will go away is a failed approach as well. We need to expand our vision, just as we must when addressing other voting rights controversies like suffrage rights for different groups of American citizens and our inadequate voting equipment infrastructure and accountability for election administration breakdowns involving long lines, poorly trained pollworkers and confusing ballot designs. Not doing so creates a repetitive cycle of failure to protect the right to vote - and leads to ugly, but often all-too-plausible claims of partisanship driving decisions about what should be a fundamental citizenship right.

For FairVote, this necessary expansion of vision will come with a movement to establish a constitutional right to vote. This month we expect to see the introduction in Congress of HJR 28, the right to vote amendment. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. has introduced this legislation every two years for a decade now, and in past Congresses the proposal has earned more than 50 co-sponsors. While HJR 28 may need redrafting to build the supermajority necessary for passage, it is an incomparably important starting point for moving forward. Please ask your Member of Congress to sponsor the legislation - and make it clear that the right to vote deserves an equal position in the U.S. Constitution with other fundamental democratic rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of the press.