Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Voter ID Laws: The Silencing of Impoverished America

By Alex GreenPublished April 15, 2016

Although voter ID laws across the United States have been passed to crackdown on voter fraud, in reality, these laws are disenfranchising poor, young, and minority voters by trying to fix a problem which does not exist.

    Since the founding of the United States, suffrage has slowly expanded to include all citizens over the age of  18, regardless of race or gender. In doing so, it has created a more democratic nation which grants all Americans the opportunity to choose their public officials.  Unfortunately, this democratic trend of enfranchising the citizens of the United States has halted and begun to regress.  In recent years, states have been passing voter ID laws which require citizens to present either a photo ID (i.e. driver's license or military ID) or a non-photo ID (i.e. birth certificate orbank statement) before they are permitted to vote.  Although these laws have been passed with the noble intention of reducing voter fraud, they have consequently disenfranchised millions of Americans, most of which are minorities.

    The first voter ID law was passed in South Carolina in the 1950s, stipulating that voters must present a document with their name on it before they can vote in an election.  After this law was passed by South Carolina, five more states followed and passed similar voter ID laws between 1970 and 1980.  However, the photo ID requirement which has become prominent today did not begin until 2004 when Arizona and Indiana passed laws which required voters to present a photo ID at their polling station before they could cast their vote.  These laws were eventually ruled to be constitutional in the Supreme Court case of Crawford v. Marion County Election Board.  After this landmark case, voter ID laws across the United States proliferated, and as of today, 33 states have implemented voter ID laws.  

   Although these laws were passed with the intention of preventing voter fraud, there is little evidence that this issue is severe enough to justify disenfranchising millions of Americans.  According to a study by Justin Levitt of New York University, Levitt concluded that, "Most allegations of fraud turn out to be baseless—and that of the few allegations remaining, most reveal election irregularities and other forms of election misconduct, rather than fraud by individual voters." Levitt's study shows that states which pass voter ID laws are trying to solve a problem which does not exist.  Even if there was a moderate  amount of fraudulent voting within the United States, it would be hard to justify disenfranchising millions of people to stop a negligible amount of voter fraud.

    Not only do voter ID laws disenfranchise millions of Americans, but they also have a disproportionate impact on poor and minority voters.  According to a study conducted by the Brennan institute, roughly 25% of African Americans and 16% of Hispanics do not have the government-issued photo ID that is required to vote.  This is significantly higher than the 9% of white voters who don't own the required photo ID.  Minority voters have a greater chance of being affected by these laws since they, on average, make less than White Americans, so it is more difficult to afford government-issued photo IDs.

    Even if voter ID laws have managed to slightly reduce voter fraud, the negative consequences that these laws have caused far outweigh the benefits. Not only have these laws had a significant impact on the poor, it has also disproportionately affected minority voters.  Because of this restriction on poor and minority voters, affluent White Americans have been given a greater amount of influence in elections.  This disproportionate amount of influence has undermined the democratic principle of "one man, one vote" by disenfranchising voters across the nation.  Therefore, voter ID laws nationwide should be repealed, so that all citizens, regardless of their ability to acquire a photo-ID, can have the right to choose elected officials and have their voices heard.