Man holding "Voter ID Required" sign

Recent Democratic support for voter identification requirements has revealed a potential path to resolution on an issue that has long been deeply divisive. That debate, however, has distracted attention from more dangerous attacks on our democracy.

Eighteen states have passed 30 new election laws in 2021 that have made it harder for voters to access the ballot. These laws make it more difficult to vote by mail, make it more likely that registered voters will be purged from lists of eligible voters, reduce voting options, give partisan officials more control over election outcomes, and make it harder for disabled voters to vote, among other consequences.

Voter identification laws often get the most attention, even though stricter ID requirements are not the most consequential changes in 2021. They are, instead, a wedge issue that has been exploited. Many Republicans insist that strict photo ID laws are needed to protect elections from voter fraud – a problem that doesn’t exist to any significant degree. Meanwhile, high-profile Democrats object to the most stringent ID requirements, arguing that they are a form of voter suppression, but recently have stated that they have always been open to more accessible forms of voter ID.

As depicted in the media, distinctions among different voter ID laws can be challenging for news consumers to see or understand. The narrative around the issue is generally presented as a choice between election security and more accessible voting, and it is often confused by false comparisons between, for example, voter access in Georgia and access in Colorado.

Manchin’s Proposal a Step Forward

Early in the summer, US Sen. Joe Manchin (D) offered compromise legislation for federal election reform that provided an opportunity to put the voter ID issue to rest. His proposal included a federal voter ID requirement that for the first time won wide-ranging Democratic support for new voter ID legislation. The proposal had other elements, including a ban on partisan gerrymandering and making Election Day a national holiday.

Notably, Stacey Abrams made national headlines when she spoke in favor of the proposed identification requirements. Abrams, a prominent voting rights advocate who criticized Georgia’s recent expansion of voter ID laws, said she supported Manchin’s legislation.

“[T]he restrictions on the forms of ID should meet the needs of the people”, she said. “And what he is proposing makes sense because it says what we’ve had in this country for so many decades which is that people can prove their identity in various ways but we should not narrow the playing field so much that we push voters out of participation.”

Manchin’s framework for a national voter ID law permits options not seen in some states. This includes allowing voters to use various forms of documentation, such as a utility bill, to verify their identity instead of a photo ID.

Former President Barack Obama called Manchin’s proposal “an effort to come up with some common-sense reforms that the majority of Americans agree with, that Democrats and Republicans can agree with.”

Senate Republicans, however, did not agree with the compromise. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) held the view that the bill was an “assault on the fundamental idea that states, not the federal government, should decide how to run their own elections.”

Three Facts About Voter ID

The picture around voter ID becomes clearer when we understand three simple facts:

  1. Voter ID already prevails in most states.
  2. The bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission supported voter ID.
  3. Research suggests that voter ID is neither the problem nor a necessary solution.
Voter ID Prevails in Most States

Thirty-six states either require or request identification at polling locations. Most states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, have “non-strict” identification laws, which means voters have options if they cannot provide acceptable ID. Eleven states have strict photo or non-photo requirements, meaning the right to vote is contingent on showing ID.

Voter ID is a widely popular proposal among voters across the political spectrum. A June 2021 Monmouth University poll found that 80% of Americans surveyed support requiring voters to show photo ID to vote, including 62% of Democrats. A July NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey also found support for voter ID to be at 80%.

Nearly all voters agree that eligible citizens should have to verify who they are to cast a ballot. What has long divided Republicans and Democrats is where they place their priority. NPR/PBS/Marist also found that 9 in 10 Democrats said voter access is a bigger concern than protecting against fraud. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans surveyed said the opposite.

This gap in priorities aptly reflects the current dilemma in the voter ID debate. Voters have been led to believe that it is a stark choice: either they can have election security or they can have greater convenience for voting. Laws that place strict limitations on allowable photo IDs will have overwhelming Republican support, but little to no Democratic support.

The Bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission Supported Voter ID

Manchin’s federal voter ID requirements were not the first attempt to bridge this partisan gap. In 2005, former President Jimmy Carter (D) and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III (R) led a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform that offered a voter ID proposal to facilitate bipartisan consensus. The commission suggested every state adopt a uniform photo ID based on the federal Real ID Act of 2005. Addressing concerns that voters of color are significantly less likely to have a government-issued photo ID, the commission further recommended that the states provide these ID cards for free, and use mobile units to distribute them.

Only 3 of the 21 members of the bipartisan commission dissented on the recommendations.

Research Suggests Voter ID Is Not the Problem Nor a Solution

Research hasn’t definitively shown a link between identification requirements and voter turnout. A paper published by the University of California-San Diego (UCSD) in 2016 shows how strict voter ID laws could negatively affect voters of color. In the end, however, the paper concluded that more empirical evidence was needed.

Studies have also shown that voter ID doesn’t do either of the things proponents or opponents say it does. A paper published by Harvard Business School in 2019 found the reform has no influence on elections at all. It doesn’t solve any problems, but it also doesn’t hinder registration or turnout.

“[W]e find no significant impact on fraud or public confidence in election integrity. This result weakens the case for adopting such laws in the first place,” said the study’s co-author and Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Vincent Prons.

He also added, “We find that fears that strict ID requirements would disenfranchise ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged populations have not materialized.”

The studies from UCSD and Harvard both acknowledge that unequal voter participation is a problem. But Prons notes that making the conversation about election security and voter enfranchisement is a distraction. The public’s attention is being diverted from greater threats to voter access such as barriers to registration.

The Conversation on Election Integrity Needs to Evolve

A handful of states have adopted stricter rules on voter ID in the wake of the 2020 election, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of more worrisome election law changes across the country. Many states are responding to historic turnout in 2020 with “reforms” that will make it harder for voters to cast their ballots.

For example, nearly all of the 18 states that have passed restrictions in 2021 have placed limitations on mail-in voting in some way, despite the impact easier access to absentee ballots had on turnout. These states have reduced the window to apply or deliver mail-in ballots, made it harder to stay on absentee ballot rolls, limited the number of drop boxes to turn in mail ballots or restricted assistance in returning a voter’s ballot, imposed stricter signature requirements, or limited local officials’ authority to send voters applications for an absentee ballot.

Several states have also made it easier to purge voter rolls if citizens did not vote in a previous election.

Montana, in addition to imposing stricter voter ID requirements for both in-person and mail-in voting, ended same-day voter registration, which allows eligible citizens to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day.

Legislators in many of these states continue to object to needed changes that have broad public support, like outlawing partisan gerrymandering and reducing the influence partisan actors have on election administration and oversight. Instead, states like Georgia and Texas have expanded the role of partisanship in elections by increasing the influence legislators or poll watchers have over election oversight.

RepresentUs, a national anti-corruption organization, released a Gerrymandering Threat Index in May that showed that 70% of the country was under a high or extreme threat of partisan gerrymandering in 2021. The decennial census data was released in August and some states have already started to redraw their legislative and congressional districts. RepresentUs partnered with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to keep voters up-to-date on the redistricting process with a Redistricting Report Card.

There are several organizations, like RepresentUs, that are working to educate voters on the impact partisanship is having on democracy and the rights of millions of voters. There are also organizations that have worked diligently to counter the misinformation that led to negative election law changes in 2021 and implement innovations that dramatically increase voter participation.

The argument made against increased mail-in voting in 2020, for example, was that it would lead to unmitigated fraud. No such fraud occurred, and the National Vote at Home Institute (NVHI) was at the forefront of efforts to debunk false claims about mail ballots and show state legislators how an all-mail system can increase voter security.

USPS Board Governor Amber McReynolds, the Founding CEO of NVHI, ran all-mail elections in Denver. She used her experience with an all-mail voting system to show states how they could conduct fair and secure elections in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

McReynolds and her organization wrote a plan for the country in March 2020 that laid out how election administrators could ensure all voters had an opportunity to vote from home while also presenting the best practices to protect election integrity. These recommendations included how to build the infrastructure states would need for the use of certified absentee ballots, ballot tracking, streamlined signature verification, and other changes that McReynolds has first-hand experience utilizing.

NVHI dispelled the myth that voters have to choose between election security and voter freedom, and the 2020 elections proved the country can have both as they were the most secure elections in US history.

The resistance to positive changes that alleviate concerns on both sides of the political spectrum was never about fraud or election integrity. Limiting voting options while encouraging greater partisanship in elections is only about one thing: control.

There may be middle ground on the voter ID issue, but there is little room for negotiation when control over who gets to vote, how they get to vote, when and where they can vote, and who oversees the election process are subject to the machinations of partisan bodies that place their own goals ahead of common democratic principles.

Does your state require voter ID?

Want to know what rules your state has about voter ID? Check out Ballotpedia’s Voter identification laws by state for a convenient way to find out.

Example of Ballotpedia's State Voter ID laws

Problem Addressed: Voting rights

Written by Shawn Griffiths

Published: September 23, 2021

Updated: September 27, 2021

Feature image: iStock cmannphoto

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