An increasing number of voters in the US are now required to show a photo ID to vote. Eight states have “strict” ID laws, and several more are considering similar rules: no proof, no vote.
Critics argue that minorities, immigrants, and the poor are less likely to have photo IDs and are effectively being disenfranchised. Proponents say the law helps prevent voting fraud.
Indiana was among the first states to pass a voter ID law back in 2005. If you ask Indianapolis attorney Tom Wheeler, who works with the Republican Party and Republican candidates, whether the law was necessary, he brings up the 2003 Democratic mayoral primary in East Chicago, Indiana.
“The fraud was so bad, that the (Indiana) Supreme Court couldn’t even figure out who won the race,” said Wheeler.
But ask Bill Groth, a lawyer who often represents Democratic Party interests, and he’ll give you a different slant.
“The state of Indiana later stipulated that there was not a single recorded prosecution for imposter voting fraud in the history of the state,” said Groth.
So which man is lying? Neither.
The Republican-controlled state legislature used the situation to help pass Indiana’s voter ID requirement for in-person voting — it does not cover absentee ballots. The law got challenged all the way up to the US Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the law ruling that voter fraud did pose a risk in the Hoosier state.
Bill Groth, the lead attorney for state Democrats, argued the real risk was disenfranchising voters. His legal team hired a statistician who estimated between 8 and 23 percent of registered voters in greater Indianapolis lacked proper IDs.
“But the district court judge, didn’t agree with his methodology, and basically disregarded his entire conclusion,” Groth said.
Tom Wheeler also disregards the Democrats’ conclusions.
“If photo ID is designed to suppress minority turnout, Democratic turnout, it didn’t work very well in Indiana. It had actually the opposite effect,” Wheeler said.
After the law was passed, more Indiana voters showed up. The state also backed a Democrat for president in 2008, Barack Obama, for the first time since 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson was elected president.
But was the increased turnout in 2008 connected to the state’s ID requirement? Did Indiana voters have a restored trust in elections? Was the Democratic base angered by the law? Or were they excited about Obama?
And were people without IDs turned away from the polls? Or did the law discourage them from even showing up at all? All difficult questions to answer.
“In general, we have lots of data pointing in different directions,” said Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at the University of Indiana, Bloomington.
Hershey adds that the data is clear, however, that “black and Latino Americans and some other groups are systematically much less likely to have the types of ID that the Indiana law requires.”
Hershey also referenced studies outside of the Hoosier state that show no significant difference in voter participation by minorities after a voter ID law is in place.
But there are plenty of stories and anecdotal evidence of voter suppression. I visited the Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis to gather some more perspectives. I asked several new Americans how likely immigrants are to get state-issued IDs.
“It was very easy for me to apply for a driver's licence,” said Maryvonne Kerzabi, who is originally from France and became a US citizen in 2009.
Marjorie Duarte-Sheffield, originally from Venezuela, said, “I came in 2000, it was July, and I think in August I already had my ID.”
Felipe Martinez from Monterrey, Mexico, echoed their experience. “For me as an immigrant, the hoops I’ve had to jump through have required the documentation. So for me at this point getting an ID is no problem.
“The problem comes for the people that were born citizens of the United States that have difficulty having access to their birth certificates because maybe they were poor, never registered, those kinds of things. You talk about a different kind of population altogether,” said Martinez, who is a Presbyterian minister and works with many Latinos.
Martinez added that many low-income minorities rely on public transportation and never get a driver’s license.
Duarte-Sheffield said it’s not asking so much to get the state-issued ID, which is free. She’s also used to the requirement — most of Latin America requires an ID to vote.
“The country where I come from, we have to have ID to vote. So, I believe that somebody could say, ‘Hey, I’m Marjorie Duarte and I want to vote.’ And if they don’t show an ID, they could do it.”
Martinez said, “I think having an ID is not a bad idea, so I don’t oppose that on principle. What I suggest though is that in the state of Indiana, it ought to be possible for somebody without an ID to vote with a sworn statement that they are who they say they are. For me the issue is, are we making it more difficult for some people to vote, or are we making it safer?”
Twenty states currently allow people without proper ID to vote and sign an affidavit without further action on the part of the voter.
Martinez takes the Democrat’ position—in states like Indiana, this is politics, a solution in search of a problem.
But are the Democrats overblowing the problems the laws create? The voter ID requirement certainly adds an additional barrier to voting, but again are people without IDs being disenfranchised en masse in Indiana?
“It’s very difficult to track down actual persons who are registered, want to vote and don’t have ID,” said Michael Pitts, a law professor at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law. “They certainly exist but there do not appear to be thousands upon thousands of such persons.”
In the case of newly-naturalized Americans, they’re also a pretty self-motivated group. Their new commitment doesn’t end with an oath.
“When you vote [in the US], it just adds another layer,” said Maryvonne Kerzabi from France. “When you vote for the first time, you feel that you really belong, that you’re part of the country.”
And if that means getting a state-issued ID, immigrants like Kerzabi will do it.
But while Indiana’s new photo ID laws may not equate to a modern-day poll tax, critics remain deeply concerned by the growing trend of similar laws.
“States with long histories of discriminatory election administration shouldn't be trusted to administer laws that reduce access to the franchise,” said political scientist Marjorie Hershey. “Laws limiting access to the franchise, especially when they disproportionately affect certain groups in the population, are not a good idea in any state.”