Our society is better and our government is more attentive when more people – rich and poor, Republican and Democratic, young and old, men and women – participate in the political process. We are all created equal.
Elections must be free and fair, but fraud can occur. A couple has a second home in another state and they both vote in both places, or a woman completes an absentee ballot for her elderly parent with her own preferences. Ballots are discarded, or new batches of ballots are suddenly discovered. Certain groups are told to vote in the wrong place on the wrong day, or too few voting machines are placed in poor neighborhoods while they are abundant in the suburbs. Millions of dollars are spent telling outright lies to voters.
When I grew up in Texas I heard stories of snowsnakes, dangerous creatures that we can never see but are just certain must be there, tunneling under the snow. Texas has lots of real snakes, many poisonous, but no snowsnakes. Still, no amount of shoveling convinces some people.
Rather than worrying about real election fraud, some Republicans promote Voter ID laws to prevent voter impersonation fraud, but this is a snowsnake. Other Republicans who put the state above their party think this is, at minimum, a waste of state money.
Judge Richard Posner, a respected conservative jurist appointed by President Reagan, once thought these laws were reasonable. Upon reviewing the evidence, however, he recently argued in a case before the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals that voter impersonation fraud is “essentially nonexistent,” and these laws were intended for the purely partisan purpose of making voting more difficult for citizens who are outside the mainstream, uncomfortable dealing with government bureaucracy, or easily discouraged.
Why is voter impersonation fraud so rare? Judge Posner noted that “voting is a low-reward activity for any given individual, for he or she knows that elections are not decided by one vote.” But while there is little evidence showing this particular problem exists, there is substantial evidence that Voter ID laws have prevented many eligible citizens from voting. That, of course, is the intent of these laws.
A Pennsylvania woman voted in every election for decades, but her purse was stolen and she wasn’t able to get a new ID because county officials lost her birth certificate. A newly enacted Voter ID law prevented her from voting. Twelve nuns from a convent in Indiana were denied the right to vote because they didn’t drive and didn’t carry ID in their habits. An older man in Alabama gave up driving and his driver’s license, so he was not allowed to vote. A woman who cleaned the Tennessee state capitol building for 30 years was denied her vote because her old ID card didn’t meet the new standards.
Most of us carry current ID most of the time, but some of us don’t. Such people tend to be young people who aren’t yet used to carrying ID, poor citizens who lack the time or funds to track down the paperwork necessary to prove their eligibility, elderly folks who no longer drive and urban residents who have never driven, people born at home in a county where records were poorly kept, or people born in counties where records were lost or damaged.
If I walk to the bank and forget my wallet at home, I can always come back the next day. Unless they are voting early, voters aren’t allowed to come back the next day. Instead, they may have to wait four more years. Asa Hutchinson, the new Republican Governor of Arkansas, forgot his ID and was blocked at the polls, so he sent a staff person to his house to find it. Most of us don’t have staff to run our errands.
These laws can hurt women who marry. Joyce Block was rejected for a voter ID for because her married name did not match her birth certificate. Sandra Watts of Texas was told she could not vote because she used her maiden name as her middle name, but as a judge she was able to work the legal system.
The 24th Amendment says that the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged for failure to pay any poll tax or other tax. For citizens who don’t already drive, it can be costly and time-consuming to order a certified copy of your birth certificate. For citizens who work, it is costly to wait all afternoon at the DMV.
The 15th Amendment says that the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied on account of race or color, but these laws are intended to reduce turnout of African-American voters.
The 26th Amendment says that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of age for citizens who are eighteen years of age or older. How many 18-year-olds are organized enough, without parental assistance, to gather all the proof they need to satisfy these laws?
Voter ID laws don’t have a huge effect on elections, because they generally affect only a small proportion of voters. They can even backfire in the short run, as offended minority voters can turn out in larger numbers. Republicans in Nevada showed in 2014 that they can win elections without them, if enough voters stay home.
But a small proportion of voters still adds up to thousands of people denied their rights to vote. Is it worse for hundreds of eligible citizens to be denied the right to vote, or for one ineligible voter, however unlikely, to cast a ballot?
As our recent turnout shows, it is hard enough getting eligible Nevadans to vote. Instead of spending taxpayer dollars creating an inflexible system that imposes real burdens on Nevadans in order to hunt for imaginary snowsnakes, we should worry about the types of fraud that do actually occur, and work to get more voters to vote, no matter how they may choose to vote.
Elliott Parker is Professor of Economics at the University of Nevada, Reno.