Are Voter ID Laws Undermining US Democracy?

A fundamental institutional mechanism that has been at the center of political struggles since the late 18th century involves the right to vote. Throughout US history, the right to vote has not been absolute. How voting rights have been defined, implemented, and extended to a growing and increasingly diverse body politic has been a continuously contested political space involving racial, gender, and class struggle. The right to vote is the crucible of democratic participation, normalizing citizen engagement and the expression of economic, social, and political grievances.

Expanding the vote to specific groups who had been disenfranchised from full citizenship due to racial, gender, or class distinctions was a dynamic aspect of political struggle in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The objective was to establish the enlightened ideal of “one person, one vote.” With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it seemed this ideal had been reached. Upheavals in the 12st century created by globalization, neoliberalism and the war on terror have once again brought voting rights into question.

Globalization, fueled by a neoliberal economic agenda, has exacerbated the exploitation of labor. The result has been “race-to-the-bottom” wages and efforts to destroy labor rights. This two pronged assault has severely reduced working class political influence leading to de facto disenfranchisement — labor’s power as a voting block has been reduced to political impotency in relation to the exponential power of a neoliberal plutocracy — the primary beneficiaries of global economic relations. The two-party system has exacerbated this marginalization. Although the Democratic Party has shown sympathy toward working class issues, it is increasingly dependent upon the financial influence of Wall Street. The Republicans have pushed laws to restrict workers’ rights and their presumptive nominee for president, Donald Trump, has exploited skilled and unskilled workers in his business dealings.

The war on terror and its resultant global political instability has led to a reemergence of US chauvinism; migrants trying to flee the chaos of the Middle East and immigrants in search of economic opportunity have reignited long-simmering racial tensions in the United States. Demographic transformations have also contributed to the growing fear by many white working class males that their political voice will not be as loud in the political future. According to a Brookings Report, in 2044, whites will constitute 49.7 percent of the total US population. This demographic shift will have a potentially significant impact on political power in a number of states. In the face of these transformations, restrictive voting laws instituted mostly by Republican controlled state legislatures are being used as the mechanism for protecting the sanctity of state rights and preserving a political order characterized by patriarchy, elitism, and white dominance.

In 2005 the Carter-Baker Commission made a bipartisan recommendation for voter ID’s at the polls. In 2005 Indiana became the first state to pass legislation requiring voters to present government-issued photo ID’s in order to vote in the 2006 election. The legislation was challenged in court. In 2008, the Supreme Court in the case Crawford v Marion County Election Board ruled 6-3 to uphold the constitutionality of Indiana’s photo ID law. Preventing voter fraud, modernizing elections, and enhancing voter confidence in the electoral system proved to be in the state’s interest according to the Supreme Court. After the Crawford case, the passage of strict and non-strict voter identification laws proliferated. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in the upcoming 2016 election, 33 states will have passed voter ID laws. Most of these laws are in states under Republican political control.

A critical distinction must be made concerning the type of voter ID law, the political competiveness of the states where the laws exist and whether the laws have a negative impact on a specific classification of voters. Researchers at the University of California San Diego have noted that voter ID laws usually take three forms: the most restrictive require a photo ID, less restrictive require a form of identification but not necessarily a photo, and others request but do not require any ID at the polls.

Eleven of the 33 states with voter ID laws have strict requirements; voters without appropriate ID must vote on a provisional ballot and then take additional steps after Election Day for their vote to be counted. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law has found that nearly 11 percent of Americans do not possess government-issued photo identification. This is most commonly the case with minority populations, the poor and the young according to the UC San Diego researchers. They state the critical question is “not who could be affected but who is affected.” The researchers assessed the differential effects of voter identification laws on the participation of distinct groups.

They concluded that strict photo ID laws decrease voter turnout, having a disproportionately negative effect on Latinos, Black people, and multi-racial Americans. Statistical models of general elections predicted Latino turnout was 10.3 points lower in states with strict photo ID regulations. For multiracial Americans, turnout was 12.8 points lower. The researchers found an increasing gap in participation rates between whites and non-whites in general and primary elections. The researchers also found these ID laws negatively effected voter turnout for naturalized citizens and the foreign born. In general, the UCSD researchers found strict voter ID laws have a “clear partisan” consequence that is more “pronounced and more negative for those on the political left.” Clearly, voter ID laws could skew the results of a closely contested election.

Right-wing conservatives have pushed voter ID laws as a political antidote for a future electorate undergoing transformation. Its political base is declining and its political agenda faces rejection by younger, more racially diverse voters. Another study has noted the Republican electoral strategy is to “rely on mobilizing its base and supporting electoral reforms that incidentally may demobilize Democratic supporters.” These researchers found partisanship plays an important role in the creation of voter ID laws noting, “The percentage of GOP lawmakers positively and significantly influences the adoption of voter ID laws.” This relationship is most powerful in politically competitive states.

In an additional blow to voting rights the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the 2013 court case, Shelby County v Holder to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, rendering Section 5 mandates as irrelevant. Section 4 of the VRA identified states that had a history of creating barriers to full and equal participation in voting procedures, while Section 5 mandated these states gain pre-clearance by the Justice Department or federal courts before making any changes to local or state voting procedures. The 2016 election will be the first election in five decades without the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. According to Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, the 2016 election will go beyond policy issues. It will be a debate about “how American politics works, how American government works, who it’s working for.” Ultimately, the 2016 election will be a test of whether the democratic ideal of universal suffrage still exists in the United States.