On Voter Fraud and the Harm of Voter ID Laws

On Voter Fraud and the Harm of Voter ID Laws

Leading up to the 2016 general election, President Trump repeatedly expressed concerns about widespread voter fraud affecting the election’s results. Despite having no evidence to support these fears, President Trump has continued to spread myths about voter fraud even after his victory. Upset at losing the popular vote by nearly three million votes, Trump took to Twitter just two days after his victory to justify the disparity with false information—now dubbed “alternative facts”—about “millions of people who voted illegally.” More recently, President Trump revealed plans to act on this belief of his, tweeting that he “will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time).”

Without citing evidence, President Trump claims voter fraud on an unprecedented scale cost him the popular vote. ( Photo: Getty Images)

Without citing evidence, President Trump claims voter fraud on an unprecedented scale cost him the popular vote. (Photo: Getty Images)

If he succeeds in launching this investigation, it would be a colossal waste of taxpayer money. Not only is his argument for the need for a major investigation founded upon unsubstantiated evidence, but there have already been investigations and studies into widespread voter fraud in past elections that proved it is nonexistent. If President Trump truly wants to improve the voting process in the United States, he should instead focus his efforts on a much more significant threat to the voting process: voter ID laws.

Voter ID Laws vs. Non-Documentary ID Requirements: The Basics

In order to understand the issues with voter ID laws, one must first understand how they function. Current voter identification laws require voters to present official identity documentation in order to either vote or register to vote. Four types of identification are considered acceptable: strict photo ID, strict non-photo ID, non-strict photo ID, and non-strict non-photo ID. Accepted photo IDs are typically valid driver’s licenses or  state-issued ID cards; accepted non-photo ID’s include birth certificates, vehicle registrations, or a current bank statement. Thirty one states in the U.S. currently utilize voter ID laws; seven have strict photo ID laws, two have strict non-photo ID laws, nine have non-strict photo ID laws, and thirteen have non-strict non-photo ID laws. Under the “strict ID” requirement, a voter without an approved ID may only cast a provisional ballot. In this case, the ballot is only counted if the voter returns with the appropriate identification within a few days after Election Day. Under “non-strict” ID requirements, if a voter fails to provide the proper identification, he or she may still validate their identity, and thus their ballot, by using alternative methods such as signing an affidavit, or having a poll worker vouch for them.

States without voter ID laws have non-documentary ID requirements. These allow voters to prove their identity in one of three ways: by signing an affidavit, providing their signature to polling officials before being given a ballot, or providing biographical information about themselves such as their name, address, and birthdate. New York, Massachusetts, California, Minnesota, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are just some of the nineteen states that use non-documentary voter ID laws. Nonetheless, all states with non-documentary identification requirements have procedures to verify and challenge voters’ eligibility. Depending on an individual’s “non-documentary” form of identification, election officials can verify their eligibility in a variety of ways. Officials may check the voter’s identification against their voter registration forms, voter records, physical appearance and/or electronic poll books. Some states employ poll watchers, people who officially oversee the voting process and may challenge a voter’s eligibility or identity.

Correction to the photo above: North Dakota’s Voter ID Law was overturned in August of 2016. Therefore, the state did not have a voter ID law in effect during the 2016 election.  (Courtesy: National Conference of State Legislatures)

Correction to the photo above: North Dakota’s Voter ID Law was overturned in August of 2016. Therefore, the state did not have a voter ID law in effect during the 2016 election. (Courtesy: National Conference of State Legislatures)

Duplicate Registrations and Dead Voters

Before debunking the myth of widespread voter fraud, I must first address the issue of Trump’s statements about it. One of the major flaws in his defense of his claim that millions of Americans voted illegally is that he appears to misconstrue outdated voter rolls—the electoral register containing the list of all those registered to vote in a certain district— with voter fraud. In a recent interview on ABC News, Trump referenced the 2012 Pew study “Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade” as support for his claim that people are able to vote twice by registering in multiple states or using dead people’s names. Trump fundamentally misunderstood the study’s findings, however, by believing it found evidence of voter fraud. What the report actually discovered was that, due to outdated voter rolls, there are millions of people who are either dead or have moved to another state and yet remain on that district’s rolls. In other words, it found that duplicate registration and dead voters are evidence that the voter registration system needs to be improved and updated more frequently. Nowhere does the study indicate that there is any evidence of elections being rigged.

Dispelling the Myth of Widespread Voter Fraud

Trump is not the first politician to make baseless claims about voter fraud. In the last decade, numerous politicians and political figures have spread this conspiracy. These claims have misguided American voters, leading many to believe that voter fraud greatly threatens our democracy and that voter ID laws are a practical, even necessary, solution. On the surface, voter ID laws appear to be an easy and effective way to protect the integrity of the voting process; in practice, however, these laws have proven to be ineffective.

The major issue with voter ID laws is that they are only capable of targeting one potential source of fraud: in-person voter fraud. This approach is deeply flawed, for in-person voter fraud is a nearly nonexistent problem. Justin Levitt, a former law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a specialist in constitutional law, investigated allegations of voter fraud from 2000-2014 in municipal, special, primary, and general elections. In fourteen years--with over 1 billion ballots cast in general, primary, special, and municipal elections--Levitt found only 31 potential cases of in-person voter fraud. Because not all of these 31 cases have been substantiated, it is likely that the true number of instances of in-person voter fraud is even smaller. Furthermore, the numerous claims of in-person voter fraud reported above are most often just clerical or typographical errors, frequently not even committed by the voters themselves. To argue that voter fraud is prevalent enough to compromise the integrity of the U.S. election process when only .0000031% of votes in fourteen years have been considered potentially illegitimate is a gross exaggeration and misrepresentation of the situation.

 Levitt’s research is among many other investigations that came to similar conclusions about voter fraud. For instance, in 2002, the Bush administration launched an investigation into voter fraud in federal elections. During the five year investigation the Justice Department undertook, it found “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.”

While these two studies are based on past elections, there has not been any substantial change to the U.S. voting process since then that would suggest that the 2016 election would be any different from past elections. In fact, The Washington Post researched the number of demonstrated cases of voter fraud in the 2016 general election and only found four cases out of the 135 million votes cast. While it is plausible that more cases of voter fraud may be detected, evidence from the aforementioned studies by Levitt and the Bush administration prove that Trump’s claim that there were three to five million cases of fraud is completely groundless.  

A political cartoon by  Dave Granlund  depicts the complexity of new voter ID laws.

A political cartoon by Dave Granlund depicts the complexity of new voter ID laws.

The Ineffectiveness of and Questionable Motives Behind Voter ID Laws

Mail-in voter fraud, while also exceptionally rare, is more easily achieved than in-person fraud. And yet, it goes unaddressed by voter ID laws. Studies of voter fraud demonstrate that if one wanted to attempt to commit voter fraud, it would be far simpler and more logical to commit fraud by forging signatures on mail-in absentee ballots than it would be to try to impersonate another person at the polls. If legislators’ true intention is to prevent voter fraud, their focus should be on creating laws that target more threatening types of fraud such as mail-in ballot fraud. Their decision not to do this calls into question their motives.

To this point, voter ID laws have been shown disproportionately to affect minority populations. Making voting more difficult for minorities, many of whom identify as Democrats, thereby decreases Democratic turnout. This leaves many wondering whether these laws constitute a planned Republican strategy to gain an upper hand in elections. This past summer, two court cases confirmed this allegation for two states with voter ID laws. In late July, a federal court ruled that Texas’s strict photo ID laws violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Latinx and black voters. A few weeks later, a Federal Appeals Court panel blocked North Carolina’s strict photo ID laws for discriminatory intent. The court held the Republican-controlled general assembly responsible for their discriminatory and deceptive bill, stating that “[a]lthough the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist.” It’s disheartening to know that there remain states creating laws reminiscent of the polls taxes and literacy tests outlawed nearly half a century ago. With at least seven other states emulating the voter ID laws of Texas and North Carolina, the country should be deeply concerned about the true intentions behind these laws.

The Obstacles to Acquiring Government-Issued ID’s

For many Americans, providing government-issued ID is as simple as reaching into their wallet and pulling out their driver’s license or state-issued ID. For some Americans, however, it is not this easy. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, 11% of Americans do not possess a government-issued ID. This number is significantly higher among racial and ethnic minorities, low-income individuals, the elderly, and the disabled.

Even though many states offer free government-issued ID cards, ironically, the documents needed to obtain these cards are neither free nor easy to get. For example, to acquire a driver’s license, a person must pay anywhere from $14.50 to $58.50. An individual’s birth certificate can cost anywhere from $15 to $30. While these costs certainly deter many potential low-income voters from pursuing government-issued ID, these are just the explicit costs. Hidden costs, including transportation and unpaid time off from work, further impede low-income, elderly, disabled, and minority persons from trying to attain proper government-issued ID. As if these problems were not already challenging enough, the process of obtaining the documents itself is often tedious, frustrating, and plagued with errors.

In her Washington Post article “Getting a photo ID to vote is easy. Unless you’re poor, black, Latino, or elderly,” Sari Horowitz gives this issue a face by telling the story of Hargie Randall. Randall, a seventy-two-year-old legally blind man from Texas, was asked to provide three forms of ID before he could acquire a government-issued photo ID. All he had when he showed up to the Department of Public Safety, however, was his voter registration (proving he voted in past elections), household bills, and his Medicaid card. Despite providing these forms of identification, Randall was told he also needed to bring his birth certificate, which required him to commute for an hour to meet his lawyer for a copy. After his lawyer helped him get a copy of his birth certificate he returned once again, but this time they refused to give him a photo ID due to a small clerical error on the certificate. After three trips to the Department of Public Safety, Randall finally received his new ID.

Randall holds out the new state ID he needed to obtain in order to vote. ( Photo: Michael Stravato/for The Washington Post)

Randall holds out the new state ID he needed to obtain in order to vote. (Photo: Michael Stravato/for The Washington Post)

For a nation that prides itself on endowing all adult citizens with the right to vote, it is shameful, unjust, and at is core woefully undemocratic to force people to jump through hoops--monetary and otherwise--to exercise this fundamental right.

Eliminating Voter ID Laws and Fixing Our Voting Process

Public officials benefiting from elections utilizing voter ID laws continue to mislead the public about the prevalence of voter fraud and the necessity of voter ID laws. Sadly, these laws allegedly made to protect US citizens from voter fraud manifest a much larger and more tangible threat to American democracy than the in-person fraud they were created to eliminate. Voter ID laws, often aimed at minorities, the elderly, and the poor, violate the fundamental constitutional right to vote. Distorting voter fraud’s prevalence is detrimental not only to our election system’s integrity, but also our national unity. President Trump is correct in pointing out that there are problems with our voting process, but he must accept that widespread voter fraud is not one of them. The sooner he and other politicians acknowledge this fact, the sooner the U.S. can begin to work to find solutions to actual issues with the voting process, such as voter ID laws and outdated voter rolls.

By taking action to reform voter ID laws and update voter rolls, President Trump could begin to unite our deeply divided country and prove himself above the petty, partisan divide. America will not truly be great again until we can ensure that the greatest number of its citizens are able to participate in the esteemed experiment that is our democracy.

(Overhead photo: Reuters)

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