The False Promise of Voter ID

More states are moving to require photo identification at the polls. But it's a solution for a problem that doesn't exist.
March 31, 2017
By Joshua A. Douglas  |  Contributor
A law professor at the University of Kentucky

Many states have adopted or are considering enacting strict photo identification requirements for voting. But doing so is a waste of time and money: The laws will not prevent election fraud, and these states will surely face protracted litigation with an uncertain outcome.

Voter ID advocates claim that the requirement is a common-sense tool to make our elections more secure. Yet that assertion is fundamentally flawed. A fraudster truly intent on perpetrating this kind of electoral shenanigans would likely have no qualms about stealing someone's identity or otherwise obtaining a fake ID to satisfy the requirement.

Nevertheless, as President Trump and his aides continue to make unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud in last year's presidential election, more states are seeking to impose stricter voting rules. Iowa and West Virginia are both poised to enact a strict photo ID requirement. Arkansas lawmakers just passed a voter ID bill in response to a state Supreme Court decision from 2013, while also approving a ballot measure for 2018 that would amend the state's constitution to permit voter IDs. And Missouri voters amended their state's constitution in 2016 to allow a voter ID rule.

But in-person voter impersonation -- the only kind of election fraud a voter ID would prevent -- is virtually nonexistent. One researcher found that there were, at most, 31 possible instances of voter impersonation out of 1 billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014. In last November's elections there were only a handful of documented cases of voter fraud.

To be sure, some forms of voter fraud exist on occasion, typically involving vote buying in local elections. Photo ID laws do nothing to stop that kind of fraud, serving only to disenfranchise honest people who do not have the required ID and face hurdles to obtain one.

The reality is that only the most brazen of criminals would try to engage in voter impersonation. Election fraud is already a crime punishable by a jail sentence; the criminal nature of identity theft or ID forgery seems unlikely to stop a person already planning on breaking election laws.

And it is hard to imagine anyone actually trying to throw an election through voter impersonation: The likelihood if being caught is too high and the potential payoff is too low, given that it would take many fraudulent votes to make a difference in the outcome. Photo ID laws are a solution in search of a problem.

The underlying story here, of course, is political. Republicans generally support strict voter ID requirements, and Democrats mostly oppose them because they tend to harm Democratic-leaning voters. But political motivations should not dictate the rules under which we run our elections. In-person voter fraud is simply not a problem that we need to address, particularly through laws that will disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters. If anything, we should be making it easier, not harder, for everyone to vote.