Why Voter-ID Laws Are Bad for Women, the Elderly, and EveryoneSeptember 04, 2012
On Thursday, a federal court blocked a Texas voter-identification law that the three-judge panel said would unnecessarily burden poor, minority citizens from exercising their right to vote. The court cited the fact that many Texans would have to travel up to 250 miles round-trip to get a free “election-ID certificate” and that the $22 cost to obtain an ID without a birth certificate was too much of a burden. The judges said, “A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote. … Simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last election will, because of the burdens imposed by [the voter-ID law], likely be unable to vote in the next election.”
The Texas law is one of a handful of such voter-ID laws that have been passed or proposed throughout the country in the last two years. But the upcoming presidential election will mark the first time that many of these measures will be exercised, which means lots more voters will face the new rules for the first time.
Voter-ID laws are written and passed on the premise that voter fraud is a widespread problem. But it isn’t. A recent study showed that you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than to commit voter fraud. Even after a five-year U.S. Justice Department survey and the slew of new laws, “the number of prosecutions [for voter fraud] have been practically nonexistent,” says Elisabeth Genn, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.
These laws don’t demonstrably protect against fraud and certainly don’t provide the legal basis for significant prosecution of fraudulent voters, yet the laws have the potential to disenfranchise many voters this November. An Associated Press study found that in Indiana and Georgia — which have some of the most stringent voter-ID laws — more than 1,200 legitimate votes weren’t counted in the 2008 presidential election, and hundreds more ballots were blocked in this year’s primaries in those states and Tennessee.
And though having ID might seem like a simple requirement, 11 percent of voting-age Americans don’t have ID. That’s 21 million people. The numbers are scarier for the elderly and women: 18 percent of people over the age of 65 don’t have a current ID, and only 66 percent of women voters have proof of citizenship that reflects their current name. The vast majority of women change their names if they get married, and most voter-ID rules require that your registration name match your photo ID name exactly. Genn says that while some women do have access to the entire chain of documents that connects their current name with birth name — including birth certificates and marriage licenses — that’s not always the case.
Texas might not join the states where these laws are implemented because of a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5 of that law mandates that states with a history of discrimination at the polls have to clear voting changes with the Justice Department before putting them into practice. The recent lawsuit was the result of the Justice Department blocking the law in this “preclearance” phase. A few other such laws have been stalled because of the rule, which along with state laws and state constitutions is on the front line of fighting these laws. And AAUW has been doing just that for decades.
Genn says that women should be especially concerned about these laws in our current political climate. “This has been a difficult several months for women. Women have seen their rights be at risk in certain ways,” she says. “There’s a connection to be made for women’s right to make their voices heard. We should be particularly wary to make sure any population can participate equally at a time when that group is facing particular or unprecedented challenges.”
Check out the Fall issue of Outlook for more on the laws that AAUW Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Lisa Maatz calls a “21st-century poll tax” and why they basically amount to old-fashioned voter suppression.