voterIDiocyIt’s like 2011 all over again.

It was two years ago that, after Republicans claimed big gains in state legislatures across the South and country in the 2010 mid-terms, lawmakers made a national push for changes to voting laws, with one of the most controversial being restrictive bills requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls.

Now, with the 2012 elections behind them, state GOP leaders have again pledged to make voter photo ID a priority this year. But has the debate — and public sentiment about voter restrictions — changed this time?

States leading the push in 2013 include Arkansas, where Republicans won over the state legislature in 2012 and a House panel advanced a voter ID bill this week, and North Carolina, where a Democratic governor’s veto staved off an ID bill in 2012, but newly elected GOP Gov. Pat McCrory has signaled he’ll support a looming measure.

In February, Virginia lawmakers reversed course from a law passed last year that allowed voters to use a utility bill, pay stub, bank statement, government check, or Social Security card as acceptable identification at the polls. A bill passed by the Virginia legislature eliminates those as acceptable forms of voter ID — although it leaves alone student ID cards and concealed gun permits — and now heads to GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell’s desk.

Despite these aggressive moves, there’s evidence that the debate over voter photo ID is different this time around. The media, which at times seemed to be caught flat-footed in the early stages of the voter ID debate, has since done in-depth reports documenting the laws’ disproportionate impact in African-American communities and among young black and Latino voters.

The U.S. Department of Justice also delivered widely publicized blows to voter ID laws in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, blocking or delaying their implementation until after the 2012 elections due to concerns about their disproportionate impact on the electorate.

And it didn’t help the cause when Republican operatives in Florida acknowledged that the issue of voter fraud was largely a “marketing ploy” to boost GOP votes, or when in June 2012 a Republican state official said that “voter ID is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” suggesting the law was driven by purely partisan motives.

Civil rights and voting advocates say that bad publicity about the impact of voter ID and other restrictions helped boost voter turnout among African Americans in 2012. It also appears to be chipping away at public support for voter photo ID laws, at least in communities that would be most affected.

For example, in Texas — where media scrutiny of voter ID has intensified over the last year — support for the measure has plummeted among African-Americans, according to a recent analysis by Joshua Blank in the Texas Tribune:

In February 2011, an overwhelming 63 percent of black respondents agreed that voters should be required to present a government-issued photo ID to vote (along with 80 percent of whites and 68 percent of Hispanics). When we asked the question again in our October 2012 survey, during the heart of the campaign season, those numbers had dropped precipitously among blacks, to 33 percent.

Support among whites and Latinos has stayed high, although Blank notes that polls tend to undercount low-income voters who would be most affected by the laws.

These divisions are important to remember when voter ID proponents point to polls, as North Carolina’s conservative Civitas Institute recently did, that claim to show the public “overwhelmingly supports” voter ID restrictions.

As with most polls, it largely depends on how the issue is framed. As David Wilson of the University of Delaware found in a series of surveys in 2012, support for voter ID was high — unless the question introduced a comment that some people fear the laws could keep eligible voters from casting a ballot. Wilson also found that supporters of voter photo ID laws were more likely to harbor negative sentiments about African Americans.

Even more striking, Wilson’s research suggests the public remains poorly informed about the entire issue: As of mid-2012, 42 percent thought that voter fraud was “common” or “somewhat common” in U.S. elections, despite the lack of any convincing evidence this is true.

In many cases, voters weren’t even aware of their state’s voter ID laws. When asked if their state required photo ID at the polls, 69 percent of those who said “yes” actually lived in states without a photo ID requirement — suggesting that some voters may already be wrongfully keeping themselves from voting if they don’t have a photo ID card.

Clearly, if there is to be an informed debate about voter ID, the public needs access to more and better information about the issues at stake.

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Editor's note: This story originally published at SouthernStudies.org and used under the creative commons license. Image: Voter ID, or Voter IDiocy by peoplesworld via their flickr photo stream and used under creative commons license.
Chris Kromm

Chris Kromm

I am executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a non-profit media, research and policy center based in Durham, North Carolina. I'm also publisher and contributor to the Institute's publications Facing South online and Southern Exposure magazine, winner of the National Magazine Award, two George Polk Awards, and other honors. I have appeared on over 300 TV and radio broadcasts for commentary on Southern politics and current issues, including American Public Media's "Marketplace," CNN "Live," C-SPAN, Democracy Now, GRITtv, KPOJ Portland, Minnesota Public Radio, Mississippi Public Radio, NPR's "All Things Considered," Public Radio International's "To the Point," WAOK Atlanta, WBAI New York, WRAL TV North Carolina, WRNO New Orleans, WUNC North Carolina's "The State of Things" and XM Satellite Radio. I contribute regularly to The Huffington Post, and my reporting and writing have also been published in The Durham Herald-Sun, The Hill, The Independent Weekly, The Nation, The Raleigh News & Observer, Salon and other publications. My work focuses on leading high-impact projects that link media, research, policy and community participation strategies to promote equity, democracy and sustainability.

6 Comments
  1. Most people don’t mind having their picture taken. It doesn’t occur to them that picture-taking day at school is largely a marketing tool for photography shops and it doesn’t occur to them that pictures on driver’s licenses and office I.D.s are similarly driven by the commercial interests of equipment and materials purveyors. Given that people living in the U.S. relocate their residence on average every two years, the market will be continually refreshed as long as current I.D.s are required. Never mind that some people change their appearance every time they visit the barber or beauty salon.

    That the demand to produce identification is a great time waster hasn’t properly registered, either. But, the fact of the matter is that time is our only limited asset and when people waste our time, it can never be replaced. How unfair is that?

    1. Lee Leslie

      It’s unfair (and apologies to those whose time I’m wasting when the read this), but we do most of the driver’s license thing as sheep (not thinking about it) and ignorance is bliss. However, denying us the right to vote is also unfair. You mentioned relocating, here’s an example: I live in Atlanta and moved across town around Labor Day. Immediately applied online for a driver’s license, which automatically notifies the registrar for voting – all Georgia needed to do was confirm my new address. Weeks when by. I called. I checked with Georgia. I checked with the county. No progress. After 45 days, I started getting emails which told me that Georgia couldn’t confirm my new address and to come in and start the process over. My point is, time waster, yes, absolutely. But for someone without transportation or infirmed or couldn’t take off work or couldn’t leave dependents, it denies their right to vote.

      1. I’ve always found it confusing that people think that voting (which is our most valuable right) does not require legitimate identification. How many people would be willing to cash a check for someone with only a folded up copy of their gas bill to support their identity? If these people have no way of identifying themselves how do they receive medical attention (if infirm) cash social security checks (if elderly) open bank accounts or generally go about their lives? The state offers free photo ID’s perhaps this is where the churches and other organizations (even the two largest special interest groups Republicans and Democrats) can step in and make sure that everyone can get to the government offices to get an ID. Seems that the folks that know people “that just couldn’t get an ID” could step in and help them get one to preserve the sanctity of the vote.

        1. Lee Leslie

          Way back in the old days when our founding parents were here, the only thing you needed to vote was some property or having paid taxes, the right skin color and gender. Once you met those things, citizenship was on the honor system. If you lived somewhere, you could pretty much vote where you lived.

          Then we started messing with things (poll taxes, literacy tests, etc.) such that now, anyone over 18 who has registered may vote except in the states where the privilege to vote has been taken away for certain crimes or because a postcard you might not have received wasn’t returned to the registration office or if you have a last name that matches the last name of someone who had committed a certain crime and someone thought you should be removed or if the address you gave when you registered was put in the computer wrong and your name deleted, etc. – then, you can vote “provisionally” which may or may not be counted, which is a whole lot better than when concerned citizens would beat you with a stick, use tar and feathers or threaten your family or just kill you. We have come a long way, but for some reason, we don’t have a national ID, instead, we leave it to each majority political party to decide who gets to vote and where. Seems corrupt on face value (and on ass value).

          It seems to me that voting is no longer to determine what a majority of rich white men want in government, but we’ve moved kicking and screaming by court order to a system of voting to determine what the majority of all adults in a community value most.

          The answer to your question is pretty simple. To get a Georgia drivers’ license, for instance, the requirements now include: either an original birth certificate or active passport and, if your name has changed your marriage license or divorce decree; AND something original to prove your social security number AND two original documents that prove your residential address; AND more stuff if your named change for a reason other than marriage – that’s really hard if, for instance, you are old or infirmed, or you just moved or your parents lost stuff or you can’t just up and drive over to some other state to find your birth certificate or you’ve lost your marriage one license when you married number two, but decided not to change your name… I fear I’ve gone on too long, but it is hard for any of us.

          To get a Georgia photo id, on the other hand, you must, of course, also appear in person and provide evidence that you are a registered voter; AND provide a photo identification document or approved identity document that includes full legal name and date of birth; AND documentation showing your name and residential address – one note: there is no place on the Secretary of State”s office web site that lists what information is approved, there is a phone number you can call – again, that is REALLY HARD for (pick one or more: old, infirmed, no car, no phone, no time, no patience, no money for transportation, etc.).

          Yes, during the election cycle, each political party will take their constituency to get these, but my question is WHY, when all they are doing is voting where they live? Don’t we deep down in our hearts want a representative democracy? I know the people in my state government are afraid that someone will cheat by voting several times or having come hear illegally and vote even though there little if any evidence other than anecdotes of this happening, but never ever and I mean no time has an individual voting fraud compared to the computer errors, mistakes and out-right cheating by those who count. It isn’t even close. Shoot, we in Georgia are lucky if we get within twenty or thirty thousand votes of the right number. Just Google it and you’ll see thousand upon thousands of stories about this in the last election alone. Then there’s that other cheating – when long lines are created to drive a way voters.

          Voter fraud is a canard. The best way to protect our right to vote is by getting rid of barriers that are designed to prevent us from exercising our right. But that is just my opinion.

  2. Frank Povah

    I love photo IDs. I have tried several times to use my permanent residency card as ID and it has without exception been refused. I have on each occasion been told that I had to show my driver’s license.

    What this country needs is a non-political Electoral Commission, recruited from the general population and employed by the government. It would handle re-districting, basing it on population and voter registration using the Australian model.

    When a citizen turns 18 it is compulsory to register as a voter and when an address is changed the Commission must be notified. The US could still stick with voluntary voting if it wished, but registration to vote would mean photo IDs would be largely unnecessary – as long as names and addresses matched. This would be no worse than the compulsory Social Security Number system already in place.

    1. Lee Leslie

      Totally agree. Of course, it couldn’t happen, could it with all the 666 and end of time and devil stuff in John of Patmos’ ramblings? There again with the right lobbyists, maybe it could be privitized. Maybe Equifax or one of the other misery feeders could set that up, but I digress. Wish we could. Then everyone could vote. Darn, the Repugs don’t want that – the only way they’d go along was if there was a big tax deductible fee attached to it and states could disenfranchise whomever for whatever.

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