Monday, April 4, 2016

Photo for Your Vote

           When consumers purchase a product with a credit card, they are often asked to present photo identification. This presumably harmless requirement designed to protect the consumer is widely accepted as a solution to credit card fraud. Likewise, some people claim that laws passed by a growing number of states which require citizens to present photo identification in order to exercise their right to vote are also designed to protect against fraud. The very definition of being an American was born from the right to vote in an open and fair election. Proponents argue that requiring photo identification is the solution to voter fraud, something they claim prevents a fair election. Conversely, opponents of such laws argue they suppress minority votes which affects the principle of open elections. Public opinion of voter identification laws is influenced by a variety of factors; some studies claim that public knowledge leads to broad support across political ideology lines, but other studies find that such laws deny equal voting rights and escalate enduring racial discrimination in the political process.

           As a mounting number of states pass voter identification laws, it is important to consider how federal legislation has sparked today’s controversy. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA for short, is the most recent federal legislation to impact voting rights since 1993. One of the provisions from HAVA requires that citizens who have never voted in a federal election to present a form of identification when registering to vote by mail—this could include photo identification or non-photo identification, such as a utility bill. This new requirement from HAVA has inadvertently opened the door for states to pass their own legislation requiring voter identification for all citizens when casting their ballot. In 2005, Indiana passed a restrictive law which required a government issued photo identification to be presented at the polls (Stout). David Stout, a journalist with the New York Times, reported that “Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana”, filed suit in the case, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, which was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court; however, the decision was made to uphold Indiana’s law in 2008 (Stout). The resulting judgment saw a swift increase in similar laws passed by other state legislatures.

           Political ideology is reported to shape public opinion about voter identification laws. It is one factor of a study conducted by David C. Wilson and Paul R. Brewer, professors of political science at the University of Delaware. In their study, Wilson and Brewer proposed that “[an] individuals’ predispositions”, along with the level of knowledge about voter identification laws, affect public support (Wilson 964). Their results indicate a smaller percentage of those with a liberal ideology support voter identification laws as compared to conservatives and moderates; however, figure 1 from their study illustrates more than half of liberals expressed broad support for such laws. Additionally, the percentage of those who believe voter fraud is common are represented in figure 1. Their data indicates that 54% of conservatives believe fraud is common, but only 30% of liberals see it as a real issue.

Fig. 1. This bar graph from Wilson and Brewer’s research shows the percentage of support for voter identification laws across political ideology lines and the percentage of those who believe voter fraud is common (Wilson 972).

           Furthermore, their research claims to have discovered a correlation between the level of understanding with voter identification laws and the amount of support for them. Overwhelmingly, conservatives proved to have more familiarity about the laws than liberals did; thus, it can be extrapolated that they also had a higher percentage of support, according to Wilson and Brewer’s research illustrated in figure 2.

Fig. 2. This line graph illustrates how support of voter identification laws is impacted by the level of familiarity with them across political ideology lines (Wilson 977).

           Opponents argue against laws requiring voter identification on the basis of racial discrimination; they contend it is essentially the equivalent of a poll tax which serves to disenfranchise minorities and citizens of low socioeconomic status. Kristen Clarke, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, argues that “prevailing public discourse around mandatory voter identification requirements have failed to sufficiently link the respective burdens faced by African American and Latino voters” (Clarke 9). The major argument of opponents is that voter identification laws—in particular those which require a government issued photo identification—impose restrictions on those people who do not have access or money to obtain the required identification. They contend the new laws have shifted away from making voter registration less accessible to instead suppressing the vote. Kristen Clarke focuses much attention on the low income African American population who in many cases do not have a drivers’ license or other equivalent government issued photo identification. From 2004 to 2008, there was a significant increase in the number of African Americans participating in the political process, illustrated in figure 3. The sharp rise in African American voter turnout was a result of Barack Obama’s candidacy for president in 2008.

Fig. 3. This line graph published by Paul Taylor and Mark Hugo Lopez from the Pew Research Center indicates a sharp increase in African American voter turnout beginning in 1996 with a particular increase between 2004 and 2008 (Taylor).

           Because of the increased voter turnout among African Americans, opponents of voter identification laws claim that Republicans have pushed for legislation that cripple their ability to participate in the political process. For these reasons, Kristen Clarke contends that racial discrimination remains a prevalent issue in today’s political process that dates back to the 15th Amendment which first granted African Americans the right to vote.

           Requiring voter identification has been an on-going controversy with both sides presenting valid arguments. Those who support voter identification laws strongly believe that voter fraud is a real concern and that such laws are necessary in order to protect the integrity of elections. They are quick to refute claims that voter identification laws are designed to prevent certain groups of people from participating in the political process. However, those who argue against voter identification laws see them as another method whose sole purpose is to suppress the vote, particularly African Americans, minorities of all ethnic groups, and citizens of low socioeconomic status. Given the Supreme Courts’ 2008 decision to uphold Indiana’s voter identification law, it appears that regardless of the arguments put forth from both sides, the future for all Americans will involve proof of their identity when showing up to vote in future elections.

Works Cited

Clarke, Kristen. "Burdening The Right To Vote: Assessing The Impact Of Mandatory Photo            Identification Requirements On Minority Voting Strength." Harvard Journal Of African            American Public Policy 13.(2007): 9-16. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Help America Vote Act of 2002. Pub. L. 107-252. 116 Stat. 1712. 29 Oct. 2002. Web.

Stout, David. “Supreme Court Upholds Voter Identification Law in Indiana.”            The New York Times, 29 Apr. 2008. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Taylor, Paul, and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Six take-aways from the Census Bureau’s voting report”.            Pew Research Center, 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.

Wilson, David C., and Paul R. Brewer. “The Foundations of Public Opinion On Voter ID Laws”.            Public Opinion Quarterly 77.4 (2013): 962-984. Academic Search Complete. Web.            7 Mar. 2016.

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