This week, while millions of voters take part in Super Tuesday, our nation’s electoral homage to the Big Gulp, people in a few states will have to deal with new voting requirements for the first time during a presidential contest. Like most things in politics at the moment, opinions on these laws split along ideological faults: Hillary Clinton has called them "a blast from the Jim Crow past” and Bernie Sanders says the legislators passing them are political cowards, while many of the Republican presidential candidates support them as weapons in the war against voter fraud.
Judging from the numbers gathered by many experts, voter fraud is as much a peril to American democracy as are runaway llamas — the rare instances that exist may have gotten a lot of press, but that doesn’t mean we’re in danger of an outbreak. Still, the fact that most of these new laws just require that voters show a photo ID before getting access to a ballot may have you wondering, are they really that big a deal?
Short answer: Yes.
Sure, most Americans have photo identification, but in a country that prides itself on democracy, most isn’t good enough — especially on the state and local level, where races can be decided by razor-thin margins. These new laws can turn voting into a time suck, a nuisance, or a flat impossibility for low-income minorities who can’t afford a passport, people who don’t drive, married women whose documents display different surnames, elderly residents with expired documents, and students.
Yes, young voters, too -- who, you might have noticed, are being talked about constantly this election cycle. Last week, NPR did a story on “The 10 States Where Millennials Could Sway The Election.” Six of those states have voter ID laws. Altogether, at least 10 states will be dealing with sometimes-confusing new voting laws this year, according to the ACLU.
How can this be a pain for students? For one thing, student IDs — even those given out by the state, at public universities — are rarely treated as acceptable forms of ID at the polls. In Alabama — which is trying out its photo ID law during a presidential election for the first time — students can use their campus ID to get a free photo ID card they can use to vote, or they can vote if two poll workers recognize and vouch for them. But Dwyer Freeman, a sophomore at the University of Alabama and founding chapter president of the school’s Southern Poverty Law Center on Campus, says that the process to get that free ID card can often cost money and time. And though the state has sent mobile photo ID issuers out before the primary, that doesn’t help much if all of the documentation you need to apply is back home with your parents.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who co-sponsored the state’s voter ID law back in 2011, says that any talk about people not having access to a photo ID card is “a lie. … You show me one person who doesn’t have an ID card, tell me where they live, and I will get them a photo ID card.” He also notes that there have been no instances of voter impersonation since the law was put into effect.
But there were also hardly any, or perhaps none, before its existence. So why were these laws created in the first place? Let’s go back to 2010, when there were a bunch of state legislatures operating under newly Republican control — in some cases, for the first time since Reconstruction. Over the next few years, as even more states acquired GOP majorities, new voter ID legislation and various other policies — like making voters prove citizenship before even registering — became law. Supporters of these bills argued that they were protecting “election integrity” by preventing nefarious types from impersonating eligible voters.
If this seems like something that wouldn’t happen much — as trying to steal an election one painstakingly purloined vote at a time sounds very inefficient and weird — that’s because it doesn’t. Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, tallied the numbers and found 31 instances of voter fraud that would have been stopped by an ID law between 2000 and 2014. Billions of votes were cast in that time period. Many of those instances, Levitt adds, may have just been mistakes or data errors, leaving even fewer cases where an ID would come in handy. Other types of voter fraud that might be invoked by those defending these laws — vote buying or coercion — wouldn’t be stopped by photo ID checks anyway.
Instead, “voter fraud” seems to be a synonym for “something that would make it harder for those already in power to remain in power for a long time.” In some of these states, hundreds of thousands of eligible voters lacked a photo ID at the time these laws went into effect. Those voters were not only people who would probably have a hard time finding the time or money to find the appropriate ID — they also happen to look a lot like demographics usually considered to be reliable Democratic voters. Wonkblog wrote about a new study from political scientists at the University of California, San Diego earlier this month — it concludes that "Voter ID laws skew democracy in favor of whites and those on the political right."
And those student voters? They’re getting roadblocks thrown their way for the same reason. In 2011, a Republican supporter of a bill that would ban out-of-state students from voting in New Hampshire said that the measure would prevent them from "doing what I did when I was a kid and foolish, voting as a liberal." The bill did not pass.
Hanging over all of this is the fact that this is the first presidential election in decades in which the Voting Rights Act hasn’t been in place to police these types of laws; in 2013, the Supreme Court weakened the section of the law that required states with a history of discrimination to get approval from the Justice Department before enacting electoral changes.
So how could these new laws affect the rest of 2016? That is the question, but it’s one that’s hard to answer. Lots of variables compel voters to the polls or keep them at home — from how competitive the race in question happens to be to what the weather is like that day — before you even begin considering how these new voting laws might play into the process. In other words, this debate is not going to end anytime soon: If turnout decreases, each party will have a different explanation for its cause, relying on different sets of data to back it up.
Meanwhile, many of these states are also currently dealing with lawsuits concerning their new voting laws, which will determine whether these laws still exist by the time the general election arrives. For now, these states are stuck with the new rules, and the best thing you can do is vote anyway — and make sure you know everything you need to bring to vote in your state. (The Brennan Center for Justice has a great guide here.)
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights project, also has some advice for first-time voters: Remember that every person’s vote matters, and that there will always be close elections; get motivated by these new laws and say, “I’m not going to let the government stop me from doing what I want”; and figure out how to navigate these new laws as far in advance as you can.