Identity Crisis: New voter ID laws subvert democracy and Catholic teaching.

July 31, 2011

David Carroll Cochran | AUGUST 1, 2011

Photo ID, please.” An increasing number of Americans will be hearing these words when they show up to vote on election day. In a trend that has gained strength over the last several years and received a boost after the 2010 midterm elections, a growing number of states are passing laws requiring specific forms of photo identification for citizens to cast ballots at their local polling places. While this may strike some as a relatively minor technical adjustment in voting security, what is really going on is far more significant and deeply at odds with Catholic social teaching.

Over the past half-century the Catholic Church has emerged as one of the strongest voices on behalf of democracy in the political realm. Its core social teaching documents, from “Pacem in Terris” to “Centesimus Annus” to “Caritas in Veritate,” strongly endorse fundamental political and civil rights, the rule of law, regular elections and an open political system. The tradition points especially to a need for broad participation in the democratic process on an equal basis for all citizens and warns against the political exclusion of the socially marginalized, especially the poor and racial, ethnic or religious minorities.

Pope John Paul II stated, in his message for the World Day of Peace in 1999, that “all citizens have the right to participate in the life of their community” and that “this right means nothing when the democratic process breaks down because of corruption and favoritism.” Such “manipulated” elections, he said, are “an affront to democracy” because they “not only obstruct legitimate sharing in the exercise of power, but also prevent people from benefiting equally from community assets and services, to which everyone has a right.”

This insistence upon free, open and equal democratic participation is most powerfully directed against autocratic regimes that deny basic political rights, but Catholics in mature democracies as well have a moral duty to heed it and to ask how they can better embody it. Scrutinizing recent efforts to require stricter voter identification is one way to do that.

Politics is often about convincing people there is a problem and then offering a solution. About a decade ago, some conservative activists and Republican elected officials began this effort by holding up the specter of voter fraud. In 2002 President George W. Bush’s Justice Department announced a major initiative to identify and prosecute occurrences of this offense. Conservative America’s well-developed infrastructure of advocacy groups and think tanks, talk radio and cable television soon took up the cause. Outraged stories of widespread fraud and conspiracies to steal elections, often featuring racially charged images of workers for Acorn, the recently defunct community organizing group, or the New Black Panther Party, are routine material in the conservative media circles. To counter this purported threat, the G.O.P. has pushed as a solution the addition of photo-identification requirements to voting laws in states from Florida to Indiana to South Dakota. About a dozen states have already instituted these requirements, and similar laws are working their way through the state governments of several more.

There are two things to know about this campaign. First, the problem it points to does not exist. Second, the real purpose of its proposed solution is to keep certain kinds of American citizens from exercising their legitimate right to vote.

A Solution Seeking a Problem

Election fraud comes in different forms. “Registration fraud” occurs when people fill out registration cards with fake or inaccurate information. Workers paid to register voters, for example, could pad their totals by filling in forms themselves. While this does sometimes happen, there is no evidence that these fake registrants—Tony Romo, Mickey Mouse—actually show up to try to vote. “Absentee ballot fraud” occurs when someone other than the rightful voter marks and mails in ballots through bribery, deception or theft. There is some evidence that this occasionally happens too, but photo identification does not apply to absentee ballots.

Photo identification can prevent only in-person voter impersonation—when someone shows up at a particular precinct claiming to be someone else also registered in that same precinct. Studies consistently show that this type of fraud is rare to nonexistent. Impersonation is the hardest and least effective way for people to try to manipulate elections. (For all the talk of voting early and often, even corrupt political machines of the past found stuffing ballot boxes before or after votes were cast to be far more effective in swinging totals).

There is no evidence that in-person voter fraud at polling stations is a current problem in the United States. This is why advocates sponsoring photo ID laws are consistently unable to point to actual cases of fraud in their states and why that intense multiyear effort by the Bush administration’s Justice Department to uncover fraud and convince local U.S. attorneys to prosecute it was a massive failure. There is nothing there.

So if the problem does not exist except in the rhetoric of the conservative movement, what is the point in proposing a solution?

Here is where things get ugly. These new laws have little impact on most voters, because they already have photo identification in the form of a driver’s license. But some citizens are far less likely to have a driver’s license, since they do not own a car or drive much. These include the poor, especially black and Hispanic citizens in urban areas, the elderly, the disabled and the young (college students, for example, may have a driver’s license but not in the county where they attend school and are eligible to vote). Most of these groups are more likely to vote for Democrats.

Photo ID laws do allow those who do not have a driver’s license to present an alternative ID, but this must be obtained well before election day. To acquire such an ID, they need to collect documents like a certified birth certificate, take time off work (for the poor, usually unpaid time) and find a way to get to county offices to wait in line for the ID. Political science has long established that requiring additional steps for such voters, especially steps that are time-consuming and inconvenient, will reduce the rate at which that group votes. Voter identification laws clearly have this effect. Studies show that while they do not prevent fraud, they do significantly lower turnout among Democratic-leaning groups, especially low-income African-American and Hispanic voters. This is the real goal of such laws. Though defenders of the Indiana voter ID law, described as the strictest in the nation, could not point to a single case of in-person fraud to justify the new requirements, the law was upheld by a federal court. U.S. Circuit Court Judge Terence T. Evans wrote in his dissent: “Let’s not beat around the bush” about “not-too-thinly-veiled attempts to discourage election-day turnout by certain folks believed to skew Democratic.”

The Fraud of ‘Anti-Fraud’ Efforts

The negative effect of additional requirements at polling places on the turnout of minority citizens in particular has a long and repulsive history in the United States. Low turnout was the intent of poll taxes and literacy tests. Today minority voters face longer lines, less convenient locations, higher rates of uncounted votes and a greater likelihood of being wrongly removed from voter roles by periodic “purges.” In states that do not require a photo ID but allow poll workers the option of asking for one if they want, black and Hispanic voters are asked far more often than others. Researchers have even found that blacks and Latinos are frequently asked for identification even in states where this is not allowed by law.

Activists pushing mandatory photo ID laws know full well the effect these will have on keeping legitimate Democratic voters from casting ballots and clearly craft the laws to do so. They restrict their “anti-fraud” efforts to voter impersonation at the polling place, where there is no evidence of a problem, rather than the absentee process, where there actually is some evidence of fraud but where Republican candidates typically poll well. In challenging Georgia’s photo ID law, career civil rights lawyers in the Justice Department revealed that the law’s chief sponsor acknowledged it would keep more African-Americans from voting, which, in her view, was fine since “if there are fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud.” (Bush administration political appointees overruled these career attorneys and approved the law anyway.) A new Texas photo ID measure will allow a concealed handgun permit to be used but, like South Carolina’s new law, prohibits the use of a university photo ID. Is that because students are increasingy leaning Democratic? The New Hampshire House speaker seemed to acknowledge that when he defended his own state’s efforts to make it more difficult for college students to vote; he said they are “foolish” and just vote “liberal.”

Politics can be an unsavory business. Both parties try to gain advantages where they can. Distortions, trading favors and backroom deals are part of the package. But the movement to require photo IDs for voting is especially cynical because it pumps up a fake problem in order to justify a solution whose real purpose is to prevent some of our most vulnerable citizens from exercising a right the Catholic tradition considers fundamental. Unfortunately, too many Catholics, who on other issues embrace church teaching, enthusiastically support these new laws and vote for them in state legislatures. We can only hope that the truth about this movement becomes more widely known and that Catholics, of whatever political stripe, will join together to resist such a clear violation of our tradition’s core moral commitments.

David Carroll Cochran is professor of politics and director of the Archbishop Kucera Center at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa.