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Your Identification, Please

posted: 9.28.12 by Donna Winchell

On the surface, they seem like fairly inocuous laws, requiring a voter to present identification. Who would have thought the issue would become so politicized? If critics’ claims are correct, those who proposed the laws knew exactly what they were doing when they acted to protect their political interests, not to prevent voter fraud, as they have claimed.

In writing about voter ID laws, you have to define your key term, and it’s not as simple as it might seem. If you want to get an idea of how complex the issue is, one place you can go to get an up-to-date account of voter ID laws is the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Thirty-three states have voter ID laws; of those, Mississippi and Wisconsin have yet to put the laws into place. The existing laws are complicated by the distinctions between strict versus non strict and photo versus non photo. As recently as last week, South Carolina was still fighting for the right to enact a stricter law than its current one, but opponents have labeled the new law racist. Other states are still fighting legal battles over their voter ID laws as the election draws nearer.

Comedian Sarah Silverman got involved recently when she did an ad encouraging voters in voter ID states to get the identification they need so that they will be able to vote come November. In her characteristic foul-mouthed manner she criticizes the laws, saying they are “presented as a way to prevent voter fraud, but are in fact designed to make it hard for specific people to vote: black people, elderly people, poor people and students.” Pause. “’Hmm, wonder what those demographics have in common,’ she says, scratching her chin.” Pause. “’Oh yeah, they are probably going to vote for this guy,’ she says as the screen shows images of President Obama.”

Is there factual evidence to support the opinion of those who, like Silverman, believe Republicans are behind voter ID laws? What about the claim that the laws make it hard for specific groups to vote? The claim that voter ID laws prevent voter fraud?

An effective argument for voter ID laws should prove a need; the need for protection against voter fraud would be based on proving that voter fraud is a problem. Supporters of the laws would also need to counter the argument that the laws disenfranchise certain groups of voters. Will the laws, for example, make it impossible for elderly voters who no longer drive to get to the polls? What about the poor who have never needed a driver’s license? What about the disabled?

An argument against voter ID laws should prove that the risk of voter fraud is not worth the added inconvenience that voters would face. It would also probably include support for the claim that Republicans are behind the laws. A bit harder to prove would be their motivation for supporting the laws.

Silverman uses humor to show the absurdity of what is considered valid identification and what is not: An elderly man is told he cannot use his Social Security card for identification even though he has been doing so for seventy years. An amputee who won a Purple Heart for his military service cannot use his veteran’s ID card in some states unless it has an expiration date. In some states, a student ID is not good enough, but a concealed handgun permit is. “’It makes perfect sense. Get these kids gun permits!’ Silverman says, her words dripping with sarcasm. ‘What a great time to be encouraging our young people to go out and get a firearm license, don’t you think? It’s just, like, so American.’”

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